CESNUR - center for studies on new religions
Department Seal 2000 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom:

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
U.S. Department of State, September 5, 2000


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

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

Both government policy and the generally amicable relationship among religions in society contribute to the free practice of religion.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Government Policies on Freedom of Religion

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally 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 non-traditional religious group applying for the "church taxation" status that the traditional three denominations enjoy.

The Government is considering formulating a national policy on "sects." In July 1999, the Business Review Commission of the National Assembly issued a report entitled "Sects or Assimilative Movements in Switzerland," containing recommendations to the Government on the need for state involvement and the creation of national policy. The Commission recommended that the Government formulate a "sect" policy and coordinate the cooperation of researchers and informational and counseling committees. In June 2000, the Government rejected the Business Review Commission's recommendation to formulate a national sect policy. The Government said such a policy would conflict with the constitutional right to freedom of religious beliefs. The Government also opposed the creation of a National Information and Counseling Center pointing out that religious matters fall under the jurisdiction of the cantons.

Religious Demography

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.

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 schools or teach their children at home.

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.

The debate over the country's World War II record contributed to the problem of anti-Semitism (see Section II). The Federal Council took action to address the problem of anti-Semitism. In December 1999, the Council reiterated a statement of regret first made in 1997 over Switzerland's failures to assist minorities fleeing the Nazi regime. On December 13, 1999, it established an association for a Center of Tolerance in Zurich. The aim of the center is to keep alive lessons of the past, to encourage ongoing analysis of history and current events, and to make clear the danger of possible manifestations of racism and xenophobia. The center's activities include a permanent exhibit in Bern and two traveling exhibits per year, as well as workshops. Its facilities include research and documentation offices.

The Government does not initiate interfaith activities.

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.

Governmental Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Due to increasing concern over certain groups, especially Scientology, the Government in 1997 asked an advisory commission to examine Scientology. The commission's 1998 report concluded that there was no basis for special monitoring of Scientology, since it did 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. There have been no new developments in this regard.

In 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 1998 Basel 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.

In Zurich in June 1995 Scientologists appealed a city decision that prohibited them from distributing flyers on public property. In a qualified victory for the Scientologists, a higher court decided in September 1999 that the Scientologists' activities were commercial and not religious, and that the city should grant them and other commercial enterprises such as fast food restaurants more freedom to distribute flyers on a permit basis. Fearing a heavy administrative and enforcement workload, the city has appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court decision rejected the appeal in June 2000, reinforcing the decision by the previous court that the Scientologists' activities were commercial in nature. The Supreme Court decision is expected to establish a nationwide legal guideline on the issue.

In Winterthur city authorities require Scientologists to apply for an annual permit to sell their books on public streets. The permit limits their activities to certain areas and certain days. This practice has been in effect since 1995 when a district court upheld fines issued to Scientologists by the city for accosting passersby to invite them onto their premises to sell them books and do personality tests. The court ruled that the Scientologists' activities were primarily commercial, rather than religious, which required them to get an annual permit for the book sale on public property and prohibited them from distributing flyers or other advertising material. The Supreme Court ruling in the Zurich case is expected to set a precedent for this case as well.

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.

Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens

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 still remain a problem, although there was no marked increase over the previous year. Government officials, including the President, have spoken frequently and publicly against anti-Semitism. According to the 1999 Swiss National Security Report, between 1995, when the antiracism law was enacted, and December 1999, there were 104 cases brought to court under the antiracism law, with 45 convictions. Of those, 15 persons were convicted for anti-Semitism, 9 for revisionism, 20 for racist oral or written slurs, and 1 for other reasons. The heaviest penalty was a 15-month imprisonment and a fine of $12,000 (20,000 Swiss francs) against a person for denying the existence of the Holocaust.

In November 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 response the Federal Council has committed to intensify efforts to combat anti-Semitic sentiment and racism. The Federal Council welcomed the publicly funded Bergier Commission report in December 1999 that disclosed Switzerland's World War II record on turning away certain refugees fleeing from Nazi oppression, including Jewish applicants. The Federal Council described the publication of the Bergier Report as an occasion for reflection and discussion of Switzerland's World War II history. The Federal Council took action to address the problem of anti-Semitism (see Section I).

In March 2000, a Geneva research group released a survey in cooperation with the American Jewish Committee in New York, stating that anti-Semitic views are held by 16 percent of Swiss citizens. Other prominent survey firms, as well as some Jewish leaders, disputed the accuracy of the Geneva firm's survey, stating that the survey overestimated the prevalence of anti-Semitic views. According to the survey, 33 percent of the Swiss People's Party (SV) supporters voiced anti-Semitic views. However, the survey found that 92 percent of all Swiss youth rejected anti-Semitic notions. The survey reflected some inconsistencies. For example, during the recent period of controversy over the country's World War II record, public opinion in support of Switzerland's antiracism laws actually strengthened.

Many nongovernmental organizations coordinate interfaith events throughout the country.

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 the promotion of human rights.

[end of document]

Europe and the New Independent States Index | Table of Contents |

[Home Page] [Cos'è il CESNUR] [Biblioteca del CESNUR] [Testi e documenti] [Libri] [Convegni]

[Home Page] [About CESNUR] [CESNUR Library] [Texts & Documents] [Book Reviews] [Conferences]