Posted by: Titus Presler | December 1, 2009

Mission activists should oppose Swiss ban on minarets

The Christian mission community should protest and oppose the ban on the construction of minarets that has been passed by Swiss voters.  In the vote held on Sunday, Nov. 29, 57.5% of voters and 22 of 26 cantons approved the ban.

Liberal groups across Europe are shocked by what they see as religious and cultural intolerance, while right-wing parties  are hailing the ban, which obviously expressed deep anxiety about the growing Muslim presence in Europe.  The ban may be found to violate both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Mission activists should speak out against the ban for the sake of mission.  In a theme that will be developed further in this blog, it needs to be recognized that mission as a category of religious life and activity is not an exclusive Christian preserve.  Christianity and Islam were classically thought to be the two great “missionary religions,” and Buddhism was later added to that category.  Today it is hard to identify a religious group that does not have some form of mission outreach, and that includes Jains and Parsis, Native American religionists and Santaria devotees, Hindus, Jews and Confucianists.

Mission in this understanding is defined as the spiritual vision and practical means by which a religious community projects its faith and work in the world and invites the adherence and participation of others.  That is a neutral, social scientific definition of mission that most would recognize as describing an important aspect of most forms of religious community life.  It can even be argued that it is inherent in any sincerely held religious belief system.

In the secular Europe of today, the Swiss concern with minarets, like the French concern with head scarves and the Italian concern with the wearing of religious emblems in schools, is claimed to have less to do with religion than with culture, at least explicitly.  The Swiss are said to be concerned about the possible erosion of Swiss identity.

We in the mission community should be concerned about the free expression of religion, which includes for all religious groups the right to worship as they choose, construct gathering places as they choose, and reach out to others as they choose.  This reaching out is the most explicitly missional aspect of those rights, but virtually every dimension of religious life has missional potential.  Religious architecture is missional in that it makes a community’s presence known in the bricks and mortar of time and space.  It is implicitly both declarative and invitational, saying in effect, “We’re here!  Come by for a visit!”  The Swiss are sincere in their concern about cultural identity, but it is the missional intent they discern in Islam that prompted the ban.  The declarative and invitational role of the minaret – which is similar to the role of a church steeple or the dome of a Hindu temple – is what they wanted to head off.  Propagation of Islam is what they wanted to prevent.   This effort to limit the free projection of religious identity is repressive, hegemonic and therefore deeply offensive to all religious sensibility.

Christians are rightly offended by limitations on Christian expression in some Muslim countries.  These include killings of Christians in Pakistan and Sudan, prohibitions of Christian worship and church buildings in Saudi Arabia, and prohibitions against Christian mission in many Muslim countries.  Christians rightly see such limitations and prohibitions as intrusive and oppressive, and as reflecting religious and political insecurity among governmental authorities.

For Switzerland to ban the architecture of a particular religious group should offend all religious groups.  From banning an architecture, it may be a short step to banning the free expression and mission efforts of not just one religion, but of all religions.

Footnote 1: Statistics from The New York Times: “Of 150 mosques or prayer rooms in Switzerland, only 4 have minarets, and only 2 more minarets are planned. None conduct the call to prayer. There are about 400,000 Muslims in a population of some 7.5 million people.”

Footnote 2: Some Christian groups specifically and vehemently eschew church buildings of any kind and thereby relinquish the missional impact of publicly identifiable physical structures.  A number of African-Initiated Churches cite biblical texts stating that God has no need of a house or a temple and therefore meet in open-air places.  Sometimes the locations acquire a particular sanctity by virtue of the group having met there for some period of time, but these churches rejoice in their mobility by which they can meet in different places at various times and also abandon, say, a particular riverside spot when the the population shifts to another area.  Lest it be thought that this only works in tropical zones, there are also church groups in northern parts of the USA that are theologically opposed to church buildings and that therefore meet in homes.

Update 12.19.09: See letter by the executive director of U. N. Watch, a human rights agency.

Update 12.19.09: An expanded and more analytical version of this posting will appear in the January 2010 issue of The Meeting Point under the title “Switzerland’s Minaret Ban: Identity and Mission in a Religious and Cultural Meeting Point.”

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Responses

  1. Such things are, sad to say, all too common among Christians and Muslims, and followers of other religions as well. It parallels the restrictions on buiilding on repairing churches in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. One response was in Turkey, where a mob threatened to kill a priest unless he demolished his church’s bell tower.

  2. Titus. It is Ian from GTS. Please email me. I have a question about Peshawar.


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