A series of advertisements displaying Bible verses, currently displayed in public transport in the city of Biel in the canton of Bern, is causing controversy. A local politician posted questions about the campaign on Facebook, triggering a series of backlashes.
This content was published on August 31, 2018 – 17:00
Frédéric Burnand, Geneva, swissinfo.ch
Mohamed Hamdaoui, journalist and left-wing representative of the Social Democratic Party of the city of Biel and of the cantonal parliament of Bern, is not in the habit of being silent. He is well known in French-speaking Switzerland for his critiques of Islamist movements, in Switzerland and elsewhere.
And it is again with secular conviction that he questions the advertising campaign of Bible verses on local buses in his community, pointing the finger at the use of a public good financed by taxpayers.
The criticisms that Hamdaoui has received in return, however, focus on his Muslim background. They were triggered by a Facebook post by the Egerkingen Committee, the group behind the successful initiative against the construction of new minarets, approved by Swiss citizens in 2009.
+ Learn more about the initiative here
The committee said: “The Muslim Social Democratic city councilor wants to ban Christian advertisements in public spaces. Recognize the signal: this is how infiltration begins.
The committee then retracted and apologized to Hamdaoui. As he confirmed to swissinfo.ch, Hamdaoui intends to file a complaint for defamation and incitement to racial hatred.
As Agency C, instigator of the Biel bus advertising campaign, noted in a written statement to swissinfo.ch: “We denounce hate speech against anyone who criticizes our campaigns. On the other hand, we understand that many inhabitants of our country are saddened by the statements of this politician, because of their attachment to the Bible and the hope it offers.
Religion: a cantonal affair
Hamdaoui emphasizes, however, that he was content to question the campaign of Christian slogans and the place given to proselytizing remarks in a public space.
This is a question that is not settled at the national level because Switzerland does not have a general system of separation of Church and State. The Federal Constitution underlines in article 72External link the role of the cantons, while stressing that a possible intervention by the authorities is possible if religious peace is threatened.
“Within the limits of their respective competences, the Confederation and the cantons can take their own measures to maintain peace between the members of the various religious communities”, specifies the article.
Religious peace threatened?
But for Hamdaoui, the biblical verses posted in the buses of his city threaten the religious peace desired by the founders of modern Switzerland (1848), which frames the religious campaign – or proselytism – in public spaces, without prohibiting it.
Agency C, which has been organizing and funding such campaigns across Switzerland for 20 years, rejects the proselytism charge: “Agency C has made it its mission to publicize the riches contained in the Bible. None of our campaigns recruit anyone for a religious movement or community, ”the organization’s president, Peter Stucki, said in a written statement.
Is the countryside so innocent? Certainly not, believes Philippe Borgeaud, historian of religions at the University of Geneva. “By posting ‘May the Lord bless you’, the display does not invite reflection, but manifests action towards its viewers. Personally, I find this unbearable. It’s like a witch has cast a spell on me.
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