By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - Swiss voters have approved a right-wing-backed proposal to ban construction of new minarets, initial projections showed on Sunday, a surprise result that could damage Switzerland's economic ties with Muslim states.
If confirmed, the result would be a huge embarrassment for the neutral Swiss government, which had warned that amending the constitution to ban construction of minarets could serve could "serve the interests of extremist circles."
"The initiative would appear to be accepted, there is a positive trend. It's a huge surprise," French-language Swiss television said, 30 minutes after polls closed at midday.
A majority of voters as well as cantons appeared to have approved the initiative, it said, citing exit polls carried out by the Berne-based Institute Gfs.
Both the Swiss government and parliament had rejected the initiative as violating the Swiss constitution, freedom of religion and the nation's cherished tradition of tolerance. The United Nations human rights watchdog had also voiced concerns.
A group of politicians from the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), the country's biggest party, and Federal Democratic Union gathered enough signatures to force the vote on the initiative which opposes the "Islamisation of Switzerland."
Its campaign poster showed the Swiss flag covered in missile-like minarets and the portrait of a woman covered with a black chador and veil associated with strict Islam.
"We just want to stop further Islamisation in Switzerland, I mean political Islam. People may practice their religion, that is no problem," Walter Wobmann, who is president of a committee of initiative backers, told Reuters on Sunday.
"We want to stop the further developments -- minarets, (the call to prayer), Sharia law," SVP parliamentarian said at a rally of supporters in the town of Egerkingen near Berne.
"The minarets is the power symbol of political Islam and Sharia law."
The Alpine country of nearly 7 million is home to more than 300,000 Muslims, mainly from Bosnia, Kosovo and Turkey.
Four mosques have minarets including those in Geneva and Zurich. The call to prayer is banned in the country.
An opinion poll carried out Nov 9-14 had showed a steady 53 percent opposed the initiative. Some 37 percent were in favor, against 34 percent a month earlier, with 10 percent undecided.
SVP parliamentarian Oskar Freysinger, a driving force in the campaign, says minarets bring the Muslim faith out into the public domain and reflect a demand for political power.
"If it's really just something decorative and secondary to them, why are they clinging so tightly to that symbol? It's a strong symbol for them, it's to show their territorial hold and I think for now, we'd rather not have that in our country," Freysinger told Reuters in Berne earlier this week.
In Geneva, home to U.N. humanitarian agencies, voters appeared overwhelmingly to have rejected the initiative by nearly 60 percent, according to Swiss television.
"I rejected the initiative, it's against Swiss law and against what I believe in. It's against the freedom of religion we have, so I voted against the initiative," one man in Geneva told Reuters Television as he left the polls.
Another Geneva voter, Antonio Spagnolo, said: "I'm shocked by this initiative, by this answer I've given you my position, I'm against this initiative because I think it's intolerance."
Tensions ran high ahead of the referendum as voters grappled with sensitive issues linked to immigration being aired across much of Western Europe.
Geneva's mosque was defaced with spray paint on Thursday, the latest incident after rocks had been thrown at the door.
"Islam in Switzerland and in the Western world brings various questions. But it doesn't call for aggression and that islamophobic propaganda," Youssef Ibram, imam of Geneva's mosque, told Reuters Television last week.
(With additional reporting by Catherine Bosley in Egerkingen and Anne Richardson in Geneva)