At the University of Geneva, Muslim students will pray at any cost

On April 21, an article appeared in top, the student magazine of the University of Geneva, in which Kaouthar Najim recounts the daily life of Muslim students reduced to prayer on the campus staircase. The reason? The university does not provide a room to allow the most religious students to perform their five daily prayers. An institutional status quo that has lasted for four years and today a situation that is worsening among students.

Indeed, the article condemns the facts of the “provocation”: “On the walls of the staircase are pasted posters with the front page of Charlie Hebdo with sensitive images touching on the Muslim religion,” writes the student, who illustrates his post with a picture of a prayer rug thrown into a trash can. The information was confirmed by Otmane El Ainoui, a member of the Arab World Association of the University of Geneva (AMAGE). The latter notes that Muslim students, connected to the same WhatsApp group, would send these photos there and express their regret that a harmful climate was emerging without any response from the institution.

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secularist law

The students are calling for the creation of a “meditation room,” according to an online petition that was initiated four years ago and recently relaunched. According to the 3,000 petitioners, members of all denominations should be able to meet in a place that allows them to “recharge and enjoy a soothing place on a spiritual level.” They also point out that this is already the case at the universities of Zurich, Saint-Gall and Lausanne. “The meditation space at the University of Lausanne hosts services and masses and a large number of students benefit from coming to meditate there several times a day,” explains Anouk Troyon, a Reformed chaplain.

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According to Yves Flückiger, rector of the University of Geneva, “there is no objection in principle to the consideration of a space for meditation – and not a space for prayer – which is open to everyone, whether religious or not, and which respects the rules of secularism.” In addition, a Christian chaplain (Protestant and Catholic) works on campus. However, according to the statutes, its activities fall under “service of a social nature” and are “open to all members of the university community.” Jean-Michel Perret, a local Protestant chaplain, assures that he is only “a tenant of the state of Geneva”, receives no subsidy from the university and does “neither services nor prayers” in his infrastructure.

According to Hafid Ouardiri, a former Geneva mosque spokesman and director of the Foundation for Mutual Knowledge, this type of place should indeed be considered, an “interfaith chaplaincy where everyone could gather according to their faith.” But what if the students decide to pray there after all? For Hafid Ouardiri, who supports the demands of Muslim students, “the law on secularism should be extended to this possibility”.

The wording of the law, updated in 2018, stipulates that any religious activity is prohibited in public facilities (except for medical and medical-social circles). This is how Rector Yves Flückiger explains his refusal to enter the subject of a room that would be used for prayer: “The University of Geneva guarantees freedom of conscience and belief, as well as strict religious neutrality, where any religious activity is prohibited in all its buildings.

an outstretched hand

But in April 2018, Protestants in Geneva heeded the call of Muslim students, as Pastor Carolina Costa of LAB, a “Christian, progressive, militant and inclusive community” based in the Plainpalais temple, explained. “At that time, on the initiative of our young people, I accepted one of the representatives of the Muslim students’ association to offer them to come and pray in the temple. Unfortunately, this proposal was not followed up,” he regrets. When asked about this outstretched hand, a student close to the Muslim Association of the University of Geneva answers bluntly: “Many Muslim and Christian students looking for a place to pray did not feel comfortable or recognized by this church.”

Finally, if some students on campus “pray at all costs,” the institution will not accept sanctions, according to the same student. “The university will always prioritize debate and dialogue,” says Yves Flückiger, whose administration is expected to soon receive a new written request for a meditation room from several Muslim student associations, backed by the University Conference of Student Associations (CUAE), an umbrella organization. for student associations.

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