Switzerland has suspended the citizenship process for the family of two teenage Syrian brothers after the boys' refused to shake hands with their female teachers for religious reasons.

The incident has sparked a national debate over religious freedoms in Switzerland.

The brothers, aged 14 and 15, who are sons of a Syrian political refugee granted asylum in 2001, had informed education officials in the northern municipality of Therwil that physical contact with women who are not family members violated their interpretation of Islam.

On Tuesday, authorities in the canton of Basel-Country where Therwil is located, said that naturalisation proceedings for the family had been put on hold.

The report also noted that such suspensions are common in citizenship procedures as authorities often require supplementary information about the families concerned.

The two boys had been exempted from a Swiss custom of pupils shaking teachers' hands, with Therwil officials instructing them to avoid contact with male teachers as well to avoid gender discrimination.

But the compromise sparked a heated response from leading Swiss politicians including Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga who insisted that "shaking hands is part of [Swiss] culture".

The Swiss news agency Le News quoted Georges Thuring, the president of the commission that oversees local citizenship applications, as saying: "I don't think we can talk of integration in relation to handshake objectors. Personally, I would reject their request" adding that "as president of the commission, I assure you that the request will be examined properly, like any other".

Le News also said that when interviewed, the two students insisted that requiring them to shake hands with teachers is discriminatory. "No one can force us to touch hands," said one of them.

Switzerland's population of eight million includes an estimated 350,000 Muslims.

Previous similar disputes have centred on Muslim parents who demanded that their daughters be exempt from swimming lessons.

Muslim families have, however, secured victories in court against schools that sought to ban the full face veil.

Source: Agencies