‘Minaret issue shows need for more interfaith dialogue’

November 06, 2010, Saturday/ 17:44:00/ NAMIK KEMAL PARLAK
Swiss President Doris Leuthard has said her government understands that they must increase efforts to foster dialogue between adherents of different religions after a popular vote in this European country prohibited the construction of Muslim minarets. In an interview with a group of journalists from various Turkish newspapers, including Today's Zaman, this past week, Leuthard commented on the lessons they have drawn as a result of the referendum late last year. “As you know, the government was not in favor of this initiative, but we also have to accept the result of our democratic system.

It clearly showed to Swiss Muslim organizations as well as to Swiss citizens that there must be better understanding to increase acceptance. The vote also showed we have to do more and open a dialogue,” she said, adding that since then they have brought representatives from different Muslims groups and churches together to that end.

A majority, 57.5 percent, of all Swiss constituents who voted in the November plebiscite last year backed the proposed initiative and said “no” to construction of minarets in this country with an estimated population of 8 million -- of which some 22 percent are expatriates. Leuthard stressed that the country is constitutionally based on Christianity, but at the same time it is a multicultural and multi-religious society where differences in that regard are respected. “Religion is a private matter for people, but everyone is required to respect the law in Switzerland,” she added.

Leuthard met with Turkish journalists on Tuesday in Bern as part of a media tour organized by the Swiss Embassy in Ankara before President Abdullah Gül’s visit to the European country, which will take place the last week of this month. Gül will be the first Turkish president to pay an official visit to Switzerland. “We are very honored that President Gül is coming to Switzerland. You know normally we have one or two state visits per year in Switzerland.

After President [Christian] Wulff from Germany, the second one honoring us will be President Gül. It is very special. We choose our partners and invite them in a very strategic way, if I may say so,” she commented on the historic visit.

One of the subjects Leuthard was asked to touch upon was if she believes multiculturalism has failed in Switzerland as German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said it has in Germany. “Our model of how we deal with immigration and integration is quite successful,” she said, adding that integration is “a process that needs encouragement” by both the host and immigrant populations. The Swiss president further argued that having a high degree of “foreigners” in the country “always creates problems,” but “it is better to put [all those problems] on the table and have a dialogue.” That more than 50 percent of all crime in Switzerland is committed by foreigners, Leuthard also noted, is a sign that “something is not correctly managed by a lot of foreigners” living in the country. On the specific topic of Turkish immigrants in the country, Leuthard said they do not have a lot of problems with them and that there are, in fact, very good examples of integration among the Turkish community in the country. “They grew up in a Turkish environment with their traditions and values but have become very well integrated into the society,” she said, referring to Murat and Hakan Yakın, two footballer brothers, who also play for the country’s national team.

‘We are hopeful about Turkey-Armenia talks’

Switzerland mediated talks between Turkey and Armenia last year as a result of which the two long-estranged neighbors signed a raft of protocols in Zurich to normalize their relations. However, after the passage of one year neither country has ratified the protocols, and as time continues without any improvement, disillusionment with the process also grows. When asked if she believes the currently frozen process will deliver the desired normalization between Turkey and Armenia, Leuthard said they are hopeful but that a result may require more time. “They [the protocols] have not worked yet. It needs time for both governments and societies. Probably you will never have the same view concerning the past, but you have a future. The people of these two countries must have a future. And, the future is built on the same interest that you try to give young people -- a perspective based on peace and neutral partnership. That is always the best thing,” she explained, pointing out that they “can influence the situation” although different interpretations as to what really happened in 1915 will probably never cease to exist.

Turkey vehemently denies that the killing of Armenians at the hands of the Ottomans almost a century ago amounts to genocide and argues that the killings were the result of civil unrest, resulting in many other people in the region, including Turks, Kurds and others, dying at a time when the Ottoman Empire was on the verge of collapse and unable to keep the incidents under control.

When asked if the Turkish and Armenian sides still conduct talks although the process is frozen, Leuthard said: “Behind the curtains you always have contact. It depends on the political will of the sides. We are not the actors -- just the facilitators of the process.” She added: “There is no doubt that both sides have a political will to that end. It is sometimes not important to be fast. It is more important that you have an agreement based on quality and mutual understanding.” She dismissed suspicions as to the fate of the talks.

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