Swiss voters have approved a ban on construction of new minarets in a surprise result certain to embarrass Switzerland's neutral government.

The Swiss news agency ATS and other media said about 57.5% of voters and all but four of the 26 cantons approved the proposal in the nationwide referendum, which was backed by the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP).

The government and parliament had rejected the initiative as violating the Swiss constitution, freedom of religion and the country's cherished tradition of tolerance.

The government had said a ban could ‘serve the interests of extremist circles’.

The United Nations human rights watchdog also voiced concern.

The government said it would respect the people's decision and declared construction of new minarets would no longer be permitted.

‘Muslims in Switzerland are able to practise their religion alone or in community with others and live according to their beliefs just as before,’ it said in a statement.

Read a feature about this issue by RTÉ's Ray Colgan in Switzerland.