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Switzerland split over Muslim students' handshake request

Jessica Hartogs, Special to CNBC
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In Switzerland, where it is customary for students to shake their teachers' hands before and after class, two Muslim students have been exempt from doing just so due to their religious beliefs.

The male students, aged 14 and 15, according to Le News, a local Swiss news website, requested the exemption on religious grounds because their teacher is a woman. In strict Islamic law, men and women should not shake hands.

The school in Therwil, a canton of the city of Basel, agreed to the request by stating that the students would not shake hands with either their male or female teachers, Le News reported.

However, this decision in turn has caused a polemic in Switzerland.

The Federation of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland (FIOS) said that a handshake between a man and woman "is permissible theologically". It added that politeness is important in Islamic tradition and that a handshake between teachers and students is "not problematic," reported

Christoph Eymann, president of the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education, said: "We cannot tolerate different behavior towards women. We can't allow exceptions for religious reasons. It doesn't help the Muslim community," according to Le News.

However, the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland said in a statement on their website, "One would think that the continued existence of Switzerland's core values was at stake, when this particular case in fact involves just two high school students who have said they wish to greet their teacher in a different way than with a handshake."

In a similar case based on religious beliefs, media reports said an 81-year-old Jewish lawyer is suing the Israeli airline El Al after being asked to move on a New York- Tel Aviv flight in December when an ultra-orthodox Jewish man objected to sitting next to her.

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