Swiss voters have supported a referendum proposal to ban the building of minarets, official results show.
More than 57% of voters and 22 out of 26 cantons–or provinces–voted in favour of the ban.
The proposal had been put forward by the Swiss People’s Party, (SVP), the largest party in parliament, which says minarets are a sign of Islamisation.
The government opposed the ban, saying it would harm Switzerland’s image, particularly in the Muslim world.
But Martin Baltisser, the SVP’s general secretary, told the BBC: “This was a vote against minarets as symbols of Islamic power.”
The BBC’s Imogen Foulkes, in Bern, says the surprise result is very bad news for the Swiss government which fears unrest among the Muslim community.
Our correspondent says voters worried about rising immigration–and with it the rise of Islam–have ignored the government’s advice.
In a statement, the government said it accepted the decision.
It said: “The Federal Council (government) respects this decision. Consequently the construction of new minarets in Switzerland is no longer permitted.”
Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said: “Concerns [about Islamic fundamentalism] have to be taken seriously.
“However, a ban on the construction of new minarets is not a feasible means of countering extremist tendencies.”
She sought to reassure Swiss Muslims, saying the decision was “not a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture”.
Switzerland is home to some 400,000 Muslims and has just four minarets.
After Christianity, Islam is the most widespread religion in Switzerland, but it remains relatively hidden.
There are unofficial Muslim prayer rooms, and planning applications for new minarets are almost always refused.
Supporters of a ban claimed that allowing minarets would represent the growth of an ideology and a legal system–Sharia law–which are incompatible with Swiss democracy.
But others say the referendum campaign incited hatred. On Thursday the Geneva mosque was vandalised for the third time during the campaign, according to local media.
Amnesty International said the vote violated freedom of religion and would probably be overturned by the Swiss supreme court or the European Court of Human Rights.
The president of Zurich’s Association of Muslim Organisations, Tamir Hadjipolu, told the BBC: “This will cause major problems because during this campaign mosques were attacked, which we never experienced in 40 years in Switzerland.
“Islamaphobia has increased intensively.”
And there was dismay among Switzerland’s Muslims upon hearing the result.
Farhad Afshar, president of the Coordination of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland, said: “The most painful thing for us is not the ban on minarets but the symbol sent by this vote.
“Muslims do not feel accepted as a religious community.”
Elham Manea, co-founder of the Forum for a Progressive Islam, added: “My fear is that the younger generation will feel unwelcome.
“It’s a message that you are not welcome here as true citizens of this society.”
Sunday’s referendum was held after the SVP collected 100,000 signatures from voters within 18 months calling for a vote.
In recent years countries across Europe have been debating how best to integrate Muslim populations.
France focused on the headscarf, while in Germany there was controversy over plans to build one of Europe’s largest mosques.
A Swiss ban on minarets could violate fundamental liberties, Europe’s top human-rights watchdog said Monday in an indication that the heavily criticized vote could be overturned.
The Swiss justice minister also said the European Court of Human Rights could strike down the Sunday vote, which incurred swift condemnation at home and abroad for banning the towers used to put out the Islamic call to prayer.
The 47-nation Council of Europe said that banning “new minarets in Switzerland raises concerns as to whether fundamental rights of individuals, protected by international treaties, should be subject to popular votes.” Switzerland presides over the council, which is associated with the European Court of Human Rights. The court rules on breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said the ban 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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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 Daniel Warner, a Swiss-American political scientist at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.
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.
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.”