GENEVA – A top Swiss official said Monday that voter approval of a ban on minarets next to mosques could be struck down in court, as critics at home and abroad swiftly condemned the vote, saying it undermined the country's secular image.
Legal experts have questioned whether the ban on the Islamic towers used for the call to prayer is compatible with Switzerland's constitution and international human rights law.
Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said it would come into force immediately, but indicated that it could be overturned.
"The ban contradicts the European Convention on Human Rights," Zurich daily Blick cited Widmer-Schlumpf as saying. Switzerland currently presides over the European Court of Human Rights, which rules on breaches of the convention.
The vote brings the focus of a Europe-wide debate over Islam and immigration to Switzerland, and is a serious slap in the face for the government, which campaigned against it and was largely take by surprise.
The referendum backed by nationalist parties was approved by 57.5 percent of the population Sunday, forcing the government to declare illegal the building of any new minarets in Switzerland. It doesn't affect the country's four existing minarets.
France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he was "a bit scandalized" by the vote, which amounts to "oppressing a religion."
"I hope that the Swiss will go back on this decision rather quickly," Kouchner said on France's RTL radio. "It is an expression of intolerance, and I detest intolerance."
The U.N.'s special investigator on religious freedom, Asma Jahangir, said the ban on new minarets constitutes "a clear discrimination against members of the Muslim community in Switzerland."
The ban contradicts Switzerland's claim to be a secular state, the largest Islamic organization in the world's most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia's Nahdlatul Ulama, said.
"The action to ban the minaret is a discriminatory act in itself. It shouldn't be done in a country that believes in secularism, democracy and liberal minds," chairman Ahmad Baddjai said.
In a statement Monday, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the secretary general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, called the ban an "example of growing anti-Islamic incitement in Europe by the extremist, anti-immigrant, xenophobic, racist, scare-mongering ultra-right politicians who reign over common sense, wisdom and universal values."
Observers pointed out that, aside from the legal implications, Switzerland will have a hard time explaining itself.
"Switzerland's self-image of tolerance and multiculturalism has taken a huge hit," said Daniel Warner, a Swiss-American political scientist at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.
Wealthy Arab tourists might think twice now about spending their money in Geneva and other Swiss cities popular with visitors from the Gulf, and the neutral country's efforts to mediate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could also suffer, said Warner.
Arriving at a meeting of European Union justice ministers, Widmer-Schlumpf argued the vote was not "a referendum against Islam ... but a vote directed against fundamentalist developments."
She defended the referendum as being "about minarets and not, of course, about the Islamic community," she said. "We are interested in a multi-religious society in Switzerland."
Supporters of the ban said the number of Muslims in Switzerland had grown sharply from 50,000 in 1980, but it is still only 4 percent of the 7.5 million population, many of whom don't practice. Western Europe has an estimated 14 million Muslims.
Voting figures showed a rural-urban split in the Swiss vote, with only 38.6 percent of people in major cities backing the ban compared with about two-thirds of the population in smaller towns and villages, officials said.
Anne-Marie Birnstiel, in the wealthy Alpine town of Gstaad told AP Television News she was disappointed by the vote and afraid of the consequences for Switzerland.
But, fellow town resident Anton Seil told APTN that "we are in Switzerland, and if I go to another country I also can't build up my church or represent my faith. So, they have to adapt to us in Switzerland too."
Switzerland isn't alone in expressing fears about a growing Muslim population, though it is the only country where voters can easily enact constitutional amendments through referendums.
France, too, has enacted laws that Muslims claim are directed at them, including a ban on the wearing of religious symbols, such as headscarves, in schools.
French legislators are currently debating whether to forbid face-covering Islamic veils completely. The far-right, anti-immigration National Front party sought to use the vote to step up pressure on France's conservative government and President Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of regional elections in March.
"I think this is the expression of a worry shared by many European peoples who see politico-religious Islam, politico-religious groups demanding more and more visibility, demanding outward signs of their religion," said party vice president Marine Le Pen on France Culture radio.
Overnight, opponents of the minaret ban lit candles in front of the Swiss parliament in Bern and hung up banners saying "This is not my Switzerland."
In Zurich, unknown people smashed a glass door of the offices of the nationalist Swiss People's Party -- which had backed the ban -- cantonal (state) police said.