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The two faces of Switzerland

Lees nu de nieuwe column van Renske Heddema

Switzerland has two faces. On the one hand, the country is a global player, open and international, home of many multinationals.  25 % of its inhabitants are foreigners, in cities like Zurich that percentage even amounts to 32%.  On the other hand, the image of a close-knit, introspective community persists. Although the Swiss society may be increasingly secularized, traditional values still play an important role. Inner cities are pleasantly calm on Sundays. Except for railway stations, Sunday sales are prohibited. Every Saturday evening, pastors from different church communities speak their "Wort zum Sonntag“ (Sunday message) on national television. Each Sunday morning, Swiss TV broadcasts an interview or documentary with a religious theme. Sales events and prizefights that elsewhere have turned Easter -and Pentecost Monday into commercial hypes are nonexistent in Switzerland.

And then there are the ubiquitous church bells of Switzerland. Not only do they ring every hour, but often every quarter of an hour. Depending on local habits, they will resound 24/7. The applicable number of strokes indicates a full hour, the quarters by 1 to 4 strokes. Anyone who has the misfortune of living in a village center with both Reformed and Catholic churches, will suffer from a merry competition of chiming bells. It can result in sleepless nights, where one can precisely follow the course of time every 15 minutes.

Time and again citizens file lawsuits against the noise pollution of the churches. Sometimes their protest bears fruit, resulting in a nightly ban of church bells. However, some churches have appealed against these judicial verdicts. Recently the Federal Supreme Court in Lausanne ruled in favor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Wädenswil, a small town close to Zurich. A couple living next to the church had sought a halt to the chiming from 10 PM till 7 AM.  They cited a scientific study by the federal institute of technology ETH Zurich that had proven the church bell produced 48 decibels with an open window, and nightly values of 40-45 decibels were found disturbing. But according to the Court, the study was not relevant. The church had proved in a separate survey that a clear majority of citizens did not suffer from the noise. The church can continue its habit of clanging every 15 minutes, even at night.

The verdict of the Supreme Court could set a precedent for church bell habits throughout Switzerland. Although church communities can determine their own church bell policy within local law, the Federal Supreme Court clearly sets tradition above public health.

Our columnist Renske Heddema is a Swiss correspondent for several foreign media. She serves as a co-president of the Council of Foreigners, a consulting body for the city government of Zurich.