Switzerland confronted international backlash on Monday over a shock vote to ban new minarets and struggled to reassure stunned Muslims that they were not outcasts while anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders jumped on the bandwagon and called for a minaret ban in the Netherlands.
The Vatican joined Muslim leaders in expressing dismay after a referendum on Sunday voted for a constitutional ban on the construction of towers attached to mosques from where the faithful are traditionally called to prayer.
Some 57.5 percent of those who cast ballots supported the measure amid a high turnout by Swiss standards of 53 percent.
The result flew in the face of opinion polls that had predicted a 'no' vote, and caught out government ministers who had opposed the ban alongside the bulk of Switzerland's political and religious establishment.
The government rushed to assure the country's 400,000 Muslims, mainly from the Balkans and Turkey, that the outcome was not a rejection of the Muslim religion or culture.
However, the result was condemned in the world's most populous Muslim nations and elsewhere in Europe as a display of intolerance.
Meanwhile the head of the Netherlands far-right Freedom Party, Geert Wilders, congratualted Switzerland and called on his government to ban minaret-building.
"Congratulations to Switzerland on the magnificent result of the minarets referendum! What can be done in Switzerland, can be done here," he said on his party's web site.
"We will call on the government to make such a referendum possible in the The Netherlands," he told the ANP news agency.
Some people, traumatized by the crisis, put a vote of protest and suspicion, rather than hate or mistrust in the box. It has come out as a bomb
Le Temps daily
Swiss newspapers also warned that the referendum had inflicted "spectacular damage" to the country's international standing.
"Some people, traumatized by the crisis, put a vote of protest and suspicion, rather than hate or mistrust in the box. It has come out as a bomb," Le Temps daily said.
The country's leading business association, Economiesuisse, pressed authorities to approach Muslim nations to prevent potential harm to trade and tourism, while Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy Rey said plans were being drawn up for a diplomatic campaign abroad.
The imam of Switzerland's biggest mosque, in Geneva, called on the Muslim world to "respect, without accepting," the outcome, and to avoid abandoning ties with Switzerland.
But Youssef Ibram sharply criticized the Swiss government for not intervening more forcefully in defense of religious freedom before the referendum got off the ground.
"The most painful for us is not the minaret ban, but the symbol sent by this vote. Muslims do not feel accepted as a religious community," he added.
Members of the hard right Swiss People's Party (SVP) -- Switzerland's biggest party -- and other right wing groups brought the referendum after petitioning 100,000 signatures from eligible voters.
The constitutional amendment only bans the construction of minarets, and has no other impact on mosques, while a cornerstone of the Swiss constitution, the freedom of religious worship, is unchanged.
The most painful for us is not the minaret ban, but the symbol sent by this vote. Muslims do not feel accepted as a religious community
Nonetheless, the Vatican on Monday endorsed criticism by Swiss bishops, underlining that the ban represented a blow to religious freedom.
Switzerland has just four minarets, which are not allowed to broadcast the call to prayer, as well as some 200 mosques, according to official sources.
While criticizing the ban, Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf acknowledged that the result "reflects fears among the population of Islamic fundamentalist tendencies" that "have to be taken seriously."
International reaction was critical.
"It's an expression of quite a bit of prejudice and maybe even fear, but it is clear that it is a negative signal in every way, there's no doubt about it," said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country holds the European Union presidency.
Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, called the vote "an expression of intolerance and I detest intolerance."
Egypt's Mufti Ali Gomaa, the Egyptian government's official interpreter of Islamic law, denounced the minaret ban as an "insult" to Muslims across the world.
Muslims account for just five percent of Switzerland's population of 7.5 million people, and form the third largest religious group after the dominant Roman Catholic and Protestant communities.
It's an expression of quite a bit of prejudice and maybe even fear, but it is clear that it is a negative signal in every way, there's no doubt about it
Swedish Foreign Minister