TRIPOLI, Libya – Libya's leader called for a jihad, or holy war, against Switzerland on Thursday because of its ban on mosque minarets — escalating a long-running diplomatic feud between the two countries.
Muammar Qaddafi also urged Muslims everywhere to boycott Swiss products and to bar Swiss planes and ships from the airports or seaports of Muslim nations.
"Those who destroy God's mosques deserve to be attacked through jihad, and if Switzerland was on our borders, we would fight it," Qaddafi was quoted by Libya's official news agency JANA as saying. He spoke before a gathering marking the birthday of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad in the Libyan city of Benghazi.
Swiss Foreign Ministry spokesman Lars Knuchel declined to comment on Qaddafi's call for a holy war against the neutral Alpine republic.
In November, Swiss voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional ban on minarets, in a controversial decision that put Switzerland at the forefront of a European backlash against a growing Muslim population.
Muslim groups in Switzerland and abroad condemned the vote as biased and anti-Islamic and business groups warned that the decision could damage relations with Muslim nations and wealthy Islamic investors who bank, travel and shop there.
Any Muslims who deal with Switzerland are "apostates," Qaddafi added.
Muslims comprise about 6 percent of Switzerland's 7.5 million people. Many are refugees from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and about one in 10 actively practices the religion, the government says.
Anxieties about growing Muslim minorities have rippled across Europe in recent years, leading to legal changes in some countries. France has banned headscarves in schools and is considering legislation to ban head-to-toe coverings for women. Some German states have introduced bans on head scarves for Muslim women teaching in public schools.
But the Swiss ban on minarets was one of the most extreme reactions.
Relations between Libya and Switzerland turned icy after Qaddafi's son, Hannibal, and his wife were arrested in a luxury hotel in Geneva in 2008 for allegedly beating up their servants.
Qaddafi was released after two days, but Libya retaliated by recalling diplomats from Switzerland, taking its money out of Swiss vaults and interrupting oil shipments to the Swiss.
In 2009, former Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz apologized in Libya and agreed to possible compensation claims. But Switzerland backed out of the deal after two Swiss businessman were blocked from leaving Libya. One left earlier this week after more than 19 months in the Swiss Embassy in Tripoli. The other has been convicted of violating residency laws and remains in Libyan custody.
Earlier this month, Tripoli responded to a Swiss travel ban on Qaddafi, his family and ministers by banning citizens of 25 European countries from traveling to Libya.
The visa restrictions threatened lucrative work for Europeans in Libya's booming oil and gas industries, but mediation from Italy and Spain has eased the constraints.