Switzerland's Muslim population received support from an unexpected source on Wednesday when an ultra-Orthodox Jewish group voiced its opposition to a campaign to ban the building of minarets, distinctive architectural features of Islamic mosques, in the country.
The proposal had been put forward by the Swiss People's Party (SVP), the largest party in parliament, which said minarets were a sign of Islamization.
The head of the Conference of European Rabbis, which convened this week in Moscow, issued a statement criticizing the proposed ban, saying that Europe won't defeat extreme Islam by battling freedom of religion and knocking down mosque minarets in Switzerland.
Rabbi Aba Dunner made his remarks in response to the results of a referendum held earlier this week, in which 57% of Swiss voters voted in favor of the ban.
"Only through unrelenting support of moderates within the Muslim community and promoting interfaith dialogue can European governments defeat the fundamentalist extreme Islam," Rabbi Dunner said.
The Conference of European Rabbis condemned the outcome of last Sunday's referendum in a resolution passed during their two-day meeting, international relations director Philip Carmel told Reuters on Thursday.
"We don't have a situation of the extreme right in Europe attacking Jews because they are content to attack Muslims," he said. "But the Swiss example is classic: it's not just Muslims who are going to be targeted by the extreme right."
Speaking after the conference ended, Carmel said any movement towards xenophobia or extreme nationalist sentiment was "bad for Jews", adding: "The growth of the far right legitimizes xenophobic opinion."
"Because of the lack of structure of umbrella Muslim groups, politicians have a tendency to prefer dialogue with those who seem to be the loudest but they are not necessarily representative," Carmel said.
The Conference, which represents over 800 rabbis in more than 40 countries, was concerned that Jews might be the next targets of a rise in right-wing sentiment aroused by the minaret ban, he said.
The rabbis met in Moscow at the historic Choral Synagogue, scene of protests by Jews during the Soviet years when so many KGB agents stood inside that worshippers preferred to meet on the street outside. The building has been restored.
Rabbis said they were delighted by the revival of Jewish life in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, where their faith was relentlessly persecuted, leading to an exodus of tens of thousands.
They said the growth of Muslim extremism in western Europe's capitals was making life difficult for Jewish communities there.
Jonasan Abraham, a London rabbi, said it was "tragic to think that it's safer now to walk the streets of Moscow as a Jew than in many Western European capitals where you feel hostility".
In some European cities, Jews were living under tight security at schools and synagogues because of the threat from Islamic fundamentalists, the rabbis said.
"You can't talk about the Holocaust in certain classrooms because the Muslim children will stand and complain about why it is being discussed," Carmel said.
The rabbis called for European governments to combat Muslim extremism by making a commitment not to engage in dialogue with fundamentalist organizations and their representatives.
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