U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said Sunday's referendum to outlaw the construction of minarets in Switzerland was the product of "anti-foreigner scare-mongering."
The criticism from Pillay, whose office is based in the Swiss city of Geneva, comes after an outcry from Muslim countries, Switzerland's European neighbors and human rights watchdogs since 57.5 percent of the Swiss population ratified the ban.
The Swiss government opposed the initiative but has sought to defend it as an action not against Islam or Muslims, but one aimed at improving integration and fighting extremism.
"These are extraordinary claims when the symbol of one religion is targeted," Pillay said in a statement. She said she was saddened to see xenophobic arguments gain such traction with Swiss voters despite their "long-standing support of fundamental human rights."
The referendum doesn't affect Switzerland's four existing minarets, or the ability of Muslims to practice their religion. It only bans the towers used to put out the Islamic call to prayer.
But wealthy Arab tourists might think twice now about spending their money in Geneva and other Swiss cities, and the neutral country's efforts to mediate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could also suffer.
Sweden, which holds the European Union's rotating presidency, said the United Nations should reconsider its presence in Geneva, where it employs thousands of people and holds hundreds of conferences each year.
"Questions could very well be raised within the U.N. about holding meetings and activities in Switzerland, even if the Geneva canton belonged to those which voted against the ban," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on his blog.
Bildt said the vote was a poor act of diplomacy on Switzerland's part.
"Even if this is Switzerland, it sends a very unfortunate signal to large parts of the rest of the world about attitudes and prejudices in Europe," Bildt said. "We all have an interest in showing that this impression is false and in the long-term even dangerous."
In Athens on Tuesday, Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said the government was worried about the ban.
"We are very concerned with this referendum. The reality of our societies in Europe and throughout the world is that each limitation on the coexistence of different cultures and religions also endangers our security," Calmy-Rey said during a meeting of foreign ministers of the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
"Provocation risks triggering other provocation and risks inflaming extremism," she added.
(Left: Protestors erect a symbolic minaret, at the Place Neuve square in Geneva, Monday, Nov. 30, 2009.)
Calmy-Rey stressed that Muslims were accepted in Swiss society, and the decision would not change the foreign policy of the country, which would continue to maintain close relations with Muslim nations.
"Swiss Muslims are well integrated and will continue to attend the 200 mosques in the country," she said.
The minister said if an appeal against the referendum is lodged at the European Court of Human Rights, it would be up to the court to decide on its legality.
By Associated Press Writer Bradley S. Klapper; AP writers Frank Jordans in Geneva, Elena Becatoros in Athens and Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm contributed to this report