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Historical survey

The federal structure

Christianity, brought by the Roman legionnaires, first appeared in Gaul at the end of the 3rd Century A.D. The first physical traces of Christianity in Switzerland date back to the 4th century. (...)

Christianity, brought by the Roman legionnaires, first appeared in Gaul at the end of the 3rd Century A.D. The first physical traces of Christianity in Switzerland date back to the 4th century. After the Romans, Germanic tribes invaded the Swiss territory, the current language boundaries were formed and the Holy Roman Empire finally took over the area. It is against this background that Christianity was firmly planted in Switzerland.

The Helvetic Confederation is traditionally considered to have been founded in 1291, the year of the Alliance pact between the Cantons of Uri, Schywz and Unterwalden (called the Waldstätten). The other cantons would later gradually join the original pact and the Federal State of Switzerland would be officially born in 1848.

D 8 October 2012    AJoëlle Sanchez

Reformation and Counter Reformation

During the 16th Century, Switzerland was plunged into the Reformation – it being the second centre after Germany – and the advent of Protestantism dramatically changed the country. From as early as (...)

During the 16th Century, Switzerland was plunged into the Reformation – it being the second centre after Germany – and the advent of Protestantism dramatically changed the country. From as early as 1521 in Zurich, Swiss Priest Ulrich Zwingli (even more radical than Martin Luther) preached the new form of Christianity. Owing to his efforts, the Mass was abolished in 1525. While Berne, Basel, Schaffhouse, Mulhouse, Biel/Bienne, Saint Gall, parts of Glarus, Appenzell and the Grisons joined the Reformation, it was completely unsuccessful in the central part of Switzerland. At this time, the Cantons, divided along religious lines, clashed on the political issues which led to the two wars in Kappel. After the second peace in 1529, the inhabitants of Zurich launched another attack in 1531 but were defeated by the Catholics, with Zwingli meeting his end during the attacks.

Having been converted to the Reformation in 1533 and taken refuge in Switzerland from 1535, Frenchman Jean Calvin arrived in Geneva in 1536 at the request of another Frenchman Guillaume Farel. Farel was an itinerant pastor to the French speaking parts of Switzerland and had already seen the Cantons of Neuchâtel and Vaud cede to the Reformation in 1530 and 1532 respectively. Geneva’s turn came in 1536 and Jean Calvin, in his capacity as President of the Company of Pastors (he had no official political position) tried to set up a quasi- theocratic Protestantism, making Geneva a spiritual capital and city of refuge. Calvinism would later influence Reformed Churches all over the world. At the end of the 16th century, the Catholic Church tried to fight back and put in place the Counter-reformation through which it was able to regain some political weight, while the Protestants had the economic and demographic advantage.

D 8 October 2012    AJoëlle Sanchez

Napoleon and the Sonderbund

After the Thirty Years’ war (1618-1648), Switzerland formally acquired its independence. Nevertheless, the state of affairs within the country remained very tense, leading to peasant revolts on (...)

After the Thirty Years’ war (1618-1648), Switzerland formally acquired its independence. Nevertheless, the state of affairs within the country remained very tense, leading to peasant revolts on the one hand and on the other hand, to renewed religious conflict which led to the two wars of Villmergen. The Roman Catholics won the first round in 1656, thus maintaining their political supremacy. In 1712 however, the Reformists hit back and gained the upper hand. The 18th Century ended with the French invasion of 1798, with Napoleon establishing the "Helvetic Republic". This century witnessed the first patriotic demonstrations in Switzerland which attempted unite people together under the umbrella of "Swissness". Following the fall of Napoleon in 1815, there were two consecutive attempts at forming a Government – the Restoration of the Ancien Regime supported by the Conservatives (1815 – 1830), and the Regeneration, championed by the Progressives (1830-1848). The conflict between the (traditionally Catholic) Conservatives and the (traditionally Protestant) Progressives deepened. In 1844, the Catholic Cantons, which felt that Protestant interests still largely prevailed and were not in their favour, secretly formed the "Sonderbund" (special alliance) which was officially aimed at serving and promoting their rights. These events led to the "Sonderbund" war in 1847 (short-lived with few casualties) which ushered in the victory of the "Federals" and the dissolution of the "Sonderbund".

D 8 October 2012    AJoëlle Sanchez

Religious peace and the new Federal State

he new Constitution was adopted in 1848 and it encouraged the development of trade and industries. Due to the influence of the progressive Protestants, a certain number of rights and freedoms, in (...)

he new Constitution was adopted in 1848 and it encouraged the development of trade and industries. Due to the influence of the progressive Protestants, a certain number of rights and freedoms, in particular the freedom of Christian worship throughout the country was guaranteed. It must be stressed that hitherto in certain Cantons, Catholics and Protestants had not enjoyed the same rights. This freedom was extended to other religious groups in 1866 so as to also include Jews. As in rest of Europe, Jews suffered persecution in Switzerland and often had limited rights. In the 1860’s, they finally acquired the rights to vote and to freely choose their profession and place of residence. The Cantons were assigned the responsibility of managing Church - State relations by the Confederation. Switzerland is currently made up of 26 cantons (6 of which are half-Cantons) which are all autonomous to a large extent. It is for this reason that religious-related legislation varies from one Canton to the other.

During the constitutional review of 1874, emphasis was placed on modernising and secularising the State and its agencies. The Roman Catholics felt threatened given a wave of new laws promoting secularism and restrictions almost exclusively targeted at their Church. In the face of this "Kulturkampf" [Church - State struggle on basic rules of society] directed against their institutions, they decided to form a sort of "underground", setting up purely Catholic establishments such as associations, schools, media bodies, etc. During this period, several Catholic groups were critical of the Roman Catholic Church and decided to split and form the Christian Catholic Church (which also existed in other countries). This Roman Catholic "underground" did not break up until during the first half of the 20th century due to even higher numbers of Catholics joining federal institutions. In 1894 for example, Catholics achieved political eminence at the Federal level by forming the Catholic People’s Party (which became the Christian Democratic Party in 1970).

D 8 October 2012    AJoëlle Sanchez

The 20th Century

Relations between the two religions improved due to the workings of Switzerland’s federal democracy. This can be noted especially after Vatican II (1965), because ecumenism could then really (...)

Relations between the two religions improved due to the workings of Switzerland’s federal democracy. This can be noted especially after Vatican II (1965), because ecumenism could then really blossom, a development which helped to ease a lot of the opposition between them.

Under the banner of the neutrality imposed on it by Europe in 1815, Switzerland was relatively spared from the two World Wars. It would put its Red Cross (founded in 1864 by Henri Dunant) to the service of refugees and prisoners. Recent history showed, however, that Switzerland was not as generous as it could have been during the war (cf. the Bergier Report).

From the 50’s, Switzerland became a popular choice for immigration whereas until then, it was mostly the Swiss that emigrated. As a result of these migratory movements coming mainly from the South during the 70’s, Catholicism is today the principal religion in Switzerland. During the 60s, 70s and 80s (and sometimes even earlier), Switzerland witnessed the arrival of other waves of immigrants - Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. And thus a change in Switzerland’s religious landscape began, testifying to a larger and unending religious pluralisation. At the same time, the traditional Swiss Churches had to deal with declining Church attendance, dying traditional beliefs and fading religious identity, as well as a massive disaffiliation trend.

D 8 October 2012    AJoëlle Sanchez

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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