Geneva (AFP): LGBTQ organisations in Switzerland are concerned that without swift action, the country could become a haven for conversion therapy, which is banned in neighbouring France and Germany.

Swiss lawmakers will start debating a motion calling for a ban on Monday, a year after the government pledged to take up the issue of conversion therapy.

Designed to change sexual orientation in favour of heterosexuality, the practice is mainly performed in religious settings.

In Germany and France, "attempts at conversion are already banned, and initiatives to ban them throughout the European Union are under way," said Pink Cross, the Swiss national umbrella organisation of gay and bisexual men.

"We absolutely have to prevent Switzerland from becoming a refuge for 'gay healers'."

Political and civil society representatives have pointed to the arrival in Zurich of the Bruderschaft des Weges (Brotherhood of the Way) association, following the change of law in Germany.

The group, which did not respond to questions from AFP, says on its website that it rejects "any form of conversion treatment" and "does not offer any form of therapy".

It says it is a "community of men who experience conflict in their sexuality" and "for reasons of our Christian faith, we therefore do not want to live our sexuality".


Community pressure
Across Europe, France, Germany, Greece and Malta have banned conversion therapies, while moves are being considered in Britain, Spain and Belgium.

According to Philippe Gilbert, of the Intercantonal Centre for Information on Beliefs, no religious structures in Switzerland are using the term 'conversion therapy'.

"We hear the term 'accompaniment'. There is a wide spectrum of practices: prayer groups, laying on of hands, exorcism in certain cases, but also weekend meetings between men to discover one's true masculinity," he told AFP.

"This doesn't mean that within certain religious communities or para-ecclesial structures there is not some level of violence towards individuals, who may face suggestions or even pressure to work on their sexual orientation."

Treatments such as electroshock therapy are not conducted in Switzerland, but LGBTQ groups insist an outright ban is needed to send a signal.

Adrian Stiefel, 45, founder of the LGBTQ branch of the Protestant Church of Geneva, stressed the importance of "raising awareness" in society.

"It's a problem rooted in mostly religious communities that condemn homosexuality and that, because of this community pressure, really leave the individual with no freedom of choice," he told AFP.

Having grown up in Geneva in an evangelical environment, for a long time he attempted to "cure" his sexual orientation through group prayer with pastors and meetings with "so-called cured" former gay men.

Aged 19, he underwent a week of "therapy" in the United States with a psychiatrist pastor, combining "psychotherapy with a form of exorcism".


'I feel the violence now'
Stiefel said these practices are often done "in a very benevolent support framework", making it difficult to realise that they are "not normal".

Also raised in an evangelical environment, Isaac de Oliveira, 25, a history student in Lausanne, went through a "pastoral accompaniment" to "evolve towards heterosexuality", while growing up in the rural Wallis region in southwest Switzerland.

At 18, he started attending a seminar by the Torrents de Vie association, with weekly meetings for nearly a year, which included praise and prayers.

"I have a brain that has been modified over the years to pursue an ideal that I am not," he told AFP.

"I feel the violence now; it was camouflaged behind love that was conditional."

Conversion therapies are not solely the prerogative of evangelical circles, although they are regularly singled out in the media, according to various observers.

The Swiss Evangelical Network is opposed to conversion "therapies" but thinks legislation is the wrong option. It stresses the right to "sexual self-determination" and the importance of "ecclesial and pastoral accompaniment" when sexuality "generates an inner conflict".

"We are touching on the bases of religious freedom by wanting to ban too much," Stephane Klopfenstein, pastor and deputy director of the Swiss Evangelical Network, told AFP.