Switzerland voters likely to weigh in on facial covering ban

ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland could become the latest country to ban facial coverings worn by some Muslim women after activists collected more than the 100,000 signatures required to put the proposal to a national vote.

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The group, called “Yes to a Mask Ban” delivered the petition on Friday, setting up a vote by 2020. Some of its leaders also spearheaded the 2009 Swiss ban on new minarets being built in the country.

A delegation of leaders from the group delivered three boxes containing 106,600 signatures to the federal chancellery, part of the Swiss parliament building in Bern.

Full-face coverings such as niqabs and burqas are a polarizing issue across Europe, with some arguing that they symbolize discrimination against women and should be outlawed. The clothing has already been banned in France.

“Facial coverings are a symbol of radical Islam that have nothing to do with religious freedom but are rather an expression of the oppression of women,” said Anian Liebrand, a Swiss campaign leader.

“In Switzerland, we show our faces when we talk to each other.”

Others contend that bans unnecessarily intrude on religious freedom.

“How many people wear these burqas in Switzerland?” said Oender Gueneş, a spokesman for the Federation Of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland, which represents more than 200 mosques.

“You can probably count those living in Switzerland on maybe one or two hands. The rest are usually rich tourists from the Gulf.”

Two thirds of Switzerland’s 8.4 million residents identify as Christians. But its Muslim population has risen to 5 percent, largely because of immigrants from former Yugoslavia.

One Swiss canton, Italian-speaking Ticino, already has a similar ban. At least two demonstrators who wore veils in defiance after the ban came into effect last July paid fines of 250 Swiss francs ($260), Swiss media have reported.

The Switzerland-wide initiative foresees parliament deciding on penalties. Though the measure would also forbid protesters from concealing their faces during demonstrations, the main focus has been on burqas.

France’s ban was upheld in 2014 by the European Court of Human Rights. This year Germany’s parliament backed a ban on full-face veils for civil servants, judges and soldiers, while Austria and the Netherlands have debated the issue.

With signatures in hand, leaders of the Swiss initiative expect three years of wrangling in Switzerland’s system of direct democracy before voters get the chance to register their view.

Liebrand is optimistic his initiative’s path will mirror the progress of the 2009 minaret ban.

“The minaret campaign started as underdogs and was something the big parties didn’t want,” he said. “But I reckon the facial coverings ban will also resonate with the people.”

Additional reporting by Joshua Franklin; Editing by Catherine Evans and David Goodman