GENEVA (Reuters) - Switzerland voted to ban the construction of new minarets on Sunday, a surprise result certain to embarrass the neutral government and which the justice minister said could affect Swiss exports and tourism.
The Swiss news agency ATS and other media said about 57.5 percent of voters and all but four of the 26 cantons approved the proposal in the nationwide referendum, which was backed by the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP).
The government and parliament had rejected the initiative as violating the Swiss constitution, freedom of religion and the country's cherished tradition of tolerance. The government had said a ban could "serve the interests of extremist circles".
But the government said it would respect the people's decision and building new minarets would no longer be allowed.
"Muslims in Switzerland are able to practice their religion alone or in community with others and live according to their beliefs just as before," it said in a statement.
German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung called the result a "disaster", noting Switzerland was the only country in Europe to have such a building ban and that it violated the Swiss constitution and the European Human Rights convention.
"It won't take long before those affected will take this to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where an embarrassing condemnation looms," the paper said in an editorial to appear on Monday.
Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said the outcome of the vote reflected a fear of Islamic fundamentalism, but the ban was "not a feasible means of countering extremist tendencies".
"I am assuming our trade relations with other countries will become more difficult," she told a news conference in Berne.
"We'll see the consequences in the export sector and possibly in the area of tourism. In recent years we've seen particular growth (in tourism) from Gulf states, it helped us a lot, and how that develops we'll have to see," she added.
The Alpine country of nearly 7 million is home to more than 300,000 Muslims, mainly from Bosnia, Kosovo and Turkey.
A group of politicians from the SVP, the country's biggest party, and the conservative Federal Democratic Union gathered enough signatures to force the referendum on the initiative which opposes the "Islamization of Switzerland".
Its campaign poster showed the Swiss flag covered in missile-like minarets and the portrait of a woman covered with a black chador and veil associated with strict Islam.
Four mosques of Switzerland's estimated 130 to 160 Muslim cultural and prayer centers, have minarets. The call to prayer is banned in the country.
Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said she was shocked and deeply regretted the outcome, which had to be seen in the context of globalization and economic crises.
"Fears and anxieties were played on," she told reporters.
Swiss ambassadors in Muslim countries would work to explain that the vote was a result of Switzerland's democracy and its foreign policy of promoting dialogue would not change, she said.
Muslim community groups in Switzerland voiced dismay.
"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", said Farhad Afshar, president of the Coordination of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland.
In Cairo, the co-chairmen of the "C1 World Dialogue" that aims to promote understanding between the West and Islam, said the result underlined "unspoken anxieties" overlooked by normal political processes and that work was needed to ensure diverse communities managed to integrate and live in peace side by side.
Walter Wobmann, president of the initiative committee, voiced glee in a victory speech near Berne. "We're enormously happy. It is a victory for this people, this Switzerland, this freedom and those who want a democratic society."
The result is likely to strengthen the hand of the SVP, which has been accused of racism for its anti-immigration campaigns, including a poster showing white sheep kicking a black sheep off a Swiss flag. (Additional reporting by Catherine Bosley in Berne and Yasmine Saleh in Cairo; Editing by Jon Boyle)