Who funds Swiss mosques?

There are thought to be around 250 mosques in Switzerland, mostly managed and organised as small private associations as well as a small number of foundations Keystone

Swiss mosques and Muslim associations are in the spotlight after concerns by parliamentarians over the opacity of their funding and possible foreign influence.

This content was published on December 23, 2016 - 11:00

“It’s naïve to say there is not a problem with the financing of Swiss mosques,” Doris Fiala, a centre-right Radical parliamentarianExternal link, told “We have no clue who is financing what. We don’t know what money is coming in. There is no transparency.”

Last week she handed in two motions to be discussed in Bern, each backed by 25 parliamentarians, which urge the authorities to improve what she describes as ‘total opacity’ surrounding the funding of religious communities in Switzerland, in particular mosques and Muslim associations.

Fiala wants every association that benefits from foreign money to be listed in the commercial register so that their accounts can be supervised by an independent cantonal authority and auditor. She also wants religious foundations to become more transparent by forcing them to give more precise details on their goals when they are listed, and to be sanctioned when they do not comply.

Around 350,000 and 400,000 Muslims live in Switzerland, around 12% of whom are Swiss citizens. They represent an extremely diverse community divided along ethnic and linguistic lines with around 80% originating from the Balkans region and Turkey.

Around 12-15% are said to actively practice their faith by regularly visiting one of about 250 mosques. These are managed by Islamic communities which are organised mostly as small private associations as well as a small number of foundations.

While Muslims in Switzerland are generally well integrated, recent charges of radicalization in mosques in Winterthur and Geneva have led to questions about the surveillance of mosques, external influence and funding.

Saïda Keller-Messahli, the president of Forum for a Progressive IslamExternal link, says the situation in Switzerland is ‘alarming’.

“Huge sums of money from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Turkey are flowing to Switzerland,” she told the NZZ newspaper last montExternal linkh.

She claims the Saudi-funded Muslim World LeagueExternal link, an NGO that promotes the spread of Islam, for example, supports at least 30 Albanian mosques where Salafist ideas are preached.

A ‘marginal’ phenomenon

But opinions appear split on the issue of foreign donors.

“I doubt whether Saïda Keller-Messahli is able to give any proof to support her claims concerning Arab money,” says Andreas Tunger-ZanettiExternal link, coordinator of the Center for Research on Religion at Lucerne University.

He said the average Swiss mosque had a list at the entrance where you can see the names of individuals and families and the amount of money they have donated during the year.

“There may be additional amounts coming in from wealthy people in Switzerland or from external sources but if I look at how these mosques are working and their external appearance I don't see Arab money. They are not ostentatious at all,” he declared.

Tunger-Zanetti said the Zurich branch of Turkey’s religious affairs directorate (Diyanet) supervises 39 imams in Switzerland and pays their salaries. But members pay the rent of rooms or buildings, electricity and other expenses.

Christophe MonnotExternal link, a sociologist on religions at Lausanne University and, like Tunger-Zanetti, a member of the Group of Researchers on Islam in Switzerland (GRIS), believes the financing of Swiss mosques is a ‘marginal phenomenon’.

“98% of Swiss mosques don’t have problematic management or groups that are out of control or dangerous,” he said.

Tunger-Zanetti nonetheless felt that a handful of mosques such as Geneva, Winterthur and Faisal mosques in Basel needed ‘a closer look to clarify what is wrong’.

‘Not a threat’

Getting hold of independent information on funding is extremely difficult, however. Federal or cantonal statistics are non-existent.

“The Confederation has no data on the funding of Muslim associations and mosques – it is not its competence – except in exceptional circumstances when national security is threatened,” the Swiss government wrote in June in reply to a recent parliamentary question by Christian Democrat Ruth HumbelExternal link.

“It is however of public knowledge that governmental organisations and private individuals send donations from abroad. But the Federal Intelligence Service has no intelligence to suggest that the external funding of mosques could have a consequence for state security," the cabinet told Fiala in JulyExternal link in answer to another parliamentary question.

Ongoing investigation

On December 18, the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper reported that the Swiss Office of the Attorney General was investigating 20 people for allegedly funding terrorism. Some have links to religious foundations or associations in Switzerland.

Six criminal proceedings are underway for “support of a criminal organisation”. They include people with ties to a foundation in canton Geneva and an association in Bern, according to the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper.

No proceedings have been opened against any associations or foundations, the attorney general’s office noted, confirming the report. While these organisations “play a role” in the wider context of terrorist financing, the authorities are only concerned with representatives or members at this stage, the office said.

According to the recent Financial Action Task Force report, Switzerland has a “small number of networks” that finance terrorist organisations.

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Fiala, who has worked with lawyers and judges on her new parliamentary motions, believes something must nonetheless be done to improve transparency. 

But she is likely to face an uphill battle. In Switzerland the freedoms of association, conscience and religion are held up as fundamental rights. Small associations with no economic goals are not required to be listed in the commercial register and declare their financial status.

The recent Financial Action Task Force (FATF) report on SwitzerlandExternal link described transparency measures applicable to small associations as ‘insufficient’. But as the government declared in July: “Adapting regulations on associations would restrict freedom of association and need a new formal legal basis. Such a restriction would have to be in the public interest and proportionate to the final aim.”


Meanwhile, the situation for foundations is evolving slowly. Since January 1, 2016 all religious and family foundations must be listed with the commercial register so that their accounts are audited correctly. They have five years to get registered.

So far not many religious foundations have done anything. One notable exception is the Fondation Culturelle Islamique de GenèveExternal link, which oversees the Geneva Mosque. It opened up its accounts to cantonal scrutiny and auditors in late 2014. A cantonal authorityExternal link checks money coming in and out and whether the use of the funds corresponds to the aims outlined in the organisation’s statutes.

Switzerland’s biggest mosque was reportedly built with Saudi funds and inaugurated in 1978 by the former king of Saudi Arabia, Khaled Ben Abdulaziz.

Facing criticism by worshippers over the running of the mosque, the foundation’s director general Ahmed Beyari, has rejected the accusations. He told Swiss public radio (RTS) last month that the foundation was independent and not financed by Saudi funds.

However, such details still remain hard for outside observers to verify. Under Swiss law the data and discussions foundations share with the state remain strictly private.

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