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Twenty-First Century Crusades?

Prediction 1: Continued tension and backlash against Muslims in Europe

Swiss nationalist force referendum on minaret ban

GENEVA (AP) Swiss nationalists are forcing a popular vote on whether to ban the construction of Muslim minarets a proposal that, if approved, could clash with Switzerland's constitutionally protected right to freedom of religion.

The Interior Ministry said it received a petition Tuesday for a referendum on the issue with more than the required 100,000 signatures.

It was submitted by members of the nationalist Swiss People's Party and the fringe Federal Democratic Union, which say they are acting to fight the spread of political Islam. They argue the minaret symbolizes a bid for political and religious power rather than just a religious sign.

People's Party lawmaker Walter Wobmann defended the move, saying the authorization for constructing a minaret in Winterthur near Zurich and pending requests in three other Swiss towns have exceeded the limits of many Swiss people's tolerance.

"Many recognize in this a further step in the creeping Islamization of Switzerland," he said.

Opponents of a construction ban said it would violate religious freedom, and Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey has warned it would lead to a security risk for Switzerland by sparking Muslim anger.

Minarets are tall spires typically built next to mosques where religious leaders call the faithful to prayer. There are now only two minarets in Switzerland, attached to mosques in Zurich and Geneva, but neither is used for calls to prayer.

This is not the first time the People's Party has ignited a provocative campaign.

Recently it embarked on an anti-immigrant initiative, complete with posters showing a black sheep being kicked off a Swiss flag and dark hands grabbing at a pile of Swiss passports. But voters last month overwhelmingly rejected the party's proposal to make it harder for foreigners to gain citizenship.

Henri-Maxime Khedoud, spokesman for the Swiss Association of Muslims for Secularism, said the latest initiative is an attack on Muslims and contrary to the freedom of everyone to practice his faith.

Khedoud also said the referendum appeared to be a bid for attention and expressed confidence that Swiss voters would see through the headline-grabbing political stunt.

"I'm sure it will be rejected," he told The Associated Press.

More than 310,000 of Switzerland's 7.5 million people are Muslims, according to the Federal Statistical Office.

The Swiss government is concerned about the impact the referendum will have on its international image. Swiss President Pascal Couchepin said the government will recommend voters reject the proposed ban. Other members of Switzerland's cross-party government have also spoken out against the ban.

Still, construction of traditional mosques and minarets in European countries has rarely been a trouble-free affair. Sweden, France, Italy, Austria, Greece, Germany and Slovenia are among the countries that have experienced opposition or protests against such projects.

In Cologne, Germany, plans to expand the city's Ditib Mosque and complete it with dome and two 177-foot-tall minarets have triggered an outcry from right-wing groups and the city's Roman Catholic archbishop.

A United Nations expert on racism, Doudou Diene, says the campaign is evidence of an "ever-increasing trend" toward anti-Islamic actions in Europe.

Switzerland's unique system of grass-roots democracy allows political hard-liners to take the issue further than in other European countries, where constitutional courts or governments have blocked moves against mosques and minarets. Any Swiss citizen who collects 100,000 signatures within 18 months can put an initiative to a nationwide vote.

No date has been set for the referendum. If it is approved, the Swiss parliament will have to enact a law enshrining a construction ban in the constitution.

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