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U.S. Department of State
Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999

Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC, September 9, 1999


Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice.

There is no official state church. However, all of the cantons financially support at least one of the three traditional denominations--Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, or Protestant--with funds collected through taxation. Each of the 26 states (cantons) has its own regulations regarding the relationship between church and state. In all cantons an individual may choose not to contribute to church taxes. However, in some cantons private companies are unable to avoid payment of the church tax. A religious organization must register with the Government in order to receive tax-exempt status. There have been no reports of a religious group applying for the "church taxation" status that the traditional three denominations enjoy.

Although traditionally approximately 95 percent of the population have been split 50-50 between the Protestant and Catholic churches, in the last 10 years there has been a trend of persons formally renouncing their membership and thus excluding themselves from church taxation. According to the 1990 census, the trend of renouncing church membership accounts for a loss of 1 to 2 percent for each of the three traditional religions. Membership in religious denominations is as follows: Roman Catholic--44 percent, Protestant--40 percent, Atheist--7 percent, Muslim--2 percent, Eastern religions--1 percent. Other denominations account for trace percentages: Christian, other--58,501, new religious movements--19,175, Jewish--17,577, Old Catholic--11,768, and unknown/undecided--1 percent.

Muslims have grown to at least 200,000, fueled by the influx of Yugoslav refugees in recent years. Muslims practice their religion throughout the country. Although only two mosques exist--in Zurich and Geneva--there have been no reports of difficulties in Muslims buying or renting space to worship. Although occasional complaints arise, such as a Muslim employee not being given time to pray during the workday, attitudes are generally tolerant toward Muslims, who constitute the country's largest non-Christian minority.

Groups of foreign origin are free to proselytize. Groups such as Young Life, Youth for Christ, Church of Scientology, Youth With a Mission, the Salvation Army, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Seventh- Day Adventists, and the Islamic Call are also active in the country. Experts estimate that between 300 to 800 denominations and groups are established throughout the country.

Foreign missionaries must obtain a "religious worker" visa to work in the country. Requirements include proof that the foreigner would not displace a citizen from doing the job, that the foreigner would be financially supported by the host organization, and that the country of origin of religious workers also grants visas to Swiss religious workers. Youth "interns" may qualify for special visas as well.

Due to increasing concern over certain groups, especially Scientology, the Government in 1997 asked an advisory commission to examine Scientology. The commission published its finding in August 1998. According to the report, there is no basis at present for special monitoring of Scientology, since it does not represent any direct or immediate threat to the security of the country. However, the report stated that Scientology had characteristics of a totalitarian organization and had its own intelligence network. The commission also warned of the significant financial burden imposed on Scientology members and recommended reexamining the issue at a later date.

In late November 1998, the city of Basel passed a law banning aggressive tactics for handing out flyers. This action was prompted by complaints about Scientologists' methods. In June 1999, Scientology suffered a setback when it lost a bid in the country's highest court to overturn a municipal law that barred persons from being approached on the street by those using "deceptive or dishonest methods." The Court ruled that a Basel 1998 law, prompted by efforts to curb Scientology, involved an intervention in religious freedom but did not infringe on it.

The city of Buchs, St. Gallen, also has passed a law modeled on the Basel law. However, it is still legal to proselytize in nonintrusive ways, such as public speaking on the street or by going door-to-door in neighborhoods.

The canton of Zurich commissioned a guide on cults and sects entitled "Paradise Conveyed" which was written by experts on the subject and was intended for use as an optional teaching resource in the public schools. The book was published in 1993. A total of 20,000 copies were sold and the book is now out of print. Several groups mentioned in the book sued for defamation, but the court ruled against them in 1993, finding that the publication did not infringe on religious freedom. The Supreme Court rejected an appeal in February 1997.

The Government does not initiate ecumenical activities. However, many nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) coordinate interfaith events throughout the country.

Religion is taught in public schools. The doctrine presented depends on which religion predominates in the particular state. However, those of different faiths are free to attend classes for their own creeds during the class period. Atheists are allowed to skip the classes. Parents also may send their children to private (parochial) schools or teach their children at home.

Of the country's 16 largest political parties, only three--the Evangelical People's Party, the Christian Democratic Party, and the Christian Social Party--subscribe to a religious philosophy. There have been no reports of individuals being excluded from a political party because of their beliefs. Some groups have organized their own parties, such as the Transcendental Meditation Maharishi's Party of Nature and the Argentinean Guru's Humanistic Party. However, none of these have gained enough of a following to win political representation.

In response to the issue of Holocaust era assets, the Government and private sector initiated a series of measures designed to shed light on the past, provide assistance to Holocaust victims, and address claims to dormant accounts in Swiss banks. These measures include: The Independent Commission of Experts under Professor Jean-Francois Bergier, charged with examining the country's wartime history and its role as a financial center; the Independent Committee of Eminent Persons under Paul Volcker, charged with resolving the issue of dormant World War II era accounts in Swiss banks; and the Swiss Special Fund for Needy Holocaust Victims, which received approximately $190 million (273 million Swiss francs) in contributions from the private sector and the Swiss National bank. In August 1998, a $1.25 billion settlement of the class action lawsuit filed in the U.S. against Swiss banks was announced.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Relations between the various religious communities generally are amicable.

In the context of discussions over Nazi gold and Holocaust era assets, anti-Semitic slurs reportedly increased during the period covered by this report. Government officials, including the President, have spoken frequently and publicly against anti-Semitism. According to NGO statistics, about a dozen persons have been convicted so far based on the antiracism law. The heaviest penalty was a 15-month imprisonment and a fine of $5,600 (8,000 Swiss francs) against a person for denying the existence of the Holocaust. The case is pending appeal. One newspaper article reported that between 1995 and 1998 there were 131 cases brought to court under the antiracism law, with 45 convictions.

On November 5, 1998, the Federal Commission Against Racism released a report on anti-Semitism in Switzerland, expressing concern that the recent controversy over the country's role during World War II had to some extent opened the door to expressions of latent anti-Semitism. At the same time, the Commission described the emergence of strong public opposition to anti-Semitism and credited the Federal Council with taking a "decisive stand" against anti-Semitism. The Commission also proposed various public and private measures to combat anti-Semitism and encourage greater tolerance and understanding. In its initial response to the report, the Federal Council pledged to facilitate implementation of the Commission's recommendations.

In May 1995, a private citizen, the president of a self-help association who had been invited as a special speaker in a non-religion class, criticized Scientology in a public classroom. One of the students' parents was a Scientologist who sued the woman for defamation. The defendant was acquitted and the ruling was upheld by the Supreme Court in June 1997.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with both Government officials and representatives of the various faiths and in the overall context of promotion of human rights.

[End of Document]

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Revised last: 10-09-1999