International Religious Freedom Report 2000 - Austria

International Religious Freedom Report 2000, Austria

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There are generally amicable relations among the various religious groups. However, there is widespread societal mistrust and discrimination against members of some nonrecognized religious groups, particularly those referred to as "sects." The installation of a new right-of-center coalition government in February 2000 led to increased concern among members of minority religions that the atmosphere of tolerance in the country was deteriorating.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Government Policies on Freedom of Religion

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.

The status of religious organizations is governed by the 1874 Law on Recognition of Churches and by a January 1998 law that establishes the status of "confessional communities." Religious organizations may be divided into three different legal categories (listed in descending order of status): officially recognized religious societies, religious confessional communities, and associations.

Religious recognition under the 1874 law has wide ranging implications, e.g., the authority to participate in the state-collected religious taxation program, to engage in religious education, and to import religious workers to act as ministers, missionaries, or teachers. Under the 1874 law, religious societies have "public corporation" status. This status permits religious societies to engage in a number of public or quasi-public activities that are denied to other religious organizations. The Constitution singles out religious societies for special recognition. State subsidies for religious teachers (at both public and private schools) constitute one of the benefits provided to religious societies that is not granted to other religious organizations.

Previously, some nonrecognized religious groups were able to organize as legal entities or associations, although this route has not been available universally. Some groups even have done so while applying for recognition as religious communities under the 1874 law. Many such applications for recognition were not handled expeditiously by the Ministry of Education and Culture; in some cases, years passed before a decision was made.

Following years of bureaucratic delay and an administrative court order instructing the Ministry of Education to render a decision, in 1997 the Ministry denied the request for recognition of Jehovah's Witnesses. Jehovah's Witnesses appealed this decision to the Constitutional Court. In a decision issued in March 1998, the Constitutional Court voided the Education Ministry's decision on Jehovah's Witnesses based on technical grounds and ordered a new decision in accordance with the January 1998 law on the Status of Confessional Communities. In July 1998, Jehovah's Witnesses received the status of a confessional community. According to the January 1998 law, the group is now subject to a 10-year observation period before they are eligible for recognition.

When the new law on the status of religious confessional communities came into effect in January 1998, there were only 12 recognized religious societies. Although the new law allowed these 12 religious societies to retain their status, it imposed new criteria on other churches that seek to achieve the status, including a 10-year observation period between the time of the application and the time it is granted.

The January 1998 law allows nonrecognized religious groups to seek official status as "confessional communities" without the fiscal and educational privileges available to recognized religions. To apply groups must have 300 members and submit to the Government their written statutes describing the goals, rights, and obligations of members; membership regulations; officials; and financing. Groups also must submit a written version of their religious doctrine, which must differ from that of any existing religion recognized under the 1874 law or registered under the new law, for a determination that their basic beliefs do not violate public security, public order, health and morals, or the rights and freedoms of citizens. The new law also sets out additional criteria for eventual recognition according to the 1874 law, such as a 20-year period of existence (at least 10 of which must be as a group organized as a confessional community under the new law) and membership equaling at least two one-thousandths of the country's population. Many religious groups and independent congregations do not meet the 300-member threshold for registration under the new law. Only Jehovah's Witnesses currently meet the higher membership requirement for recognition under the 1874 law.

Religious confessional communities, once they are recognized officially as such by the Government, have juridical standing, which permits them to engage in such activities as purchasing real estate in their own names, contracting for goods and services, and other activities. The category of religious confessional community did not exist prior to the adoption of the 1998 Law on the Status of Religious Confessional Communities. A religious organization that seeks to obtain this new status is subject to a 6-month waiting period from the time of application to the Ministry of Education and Culture. According to the Ministry, as of April 1999 only 11 organizations had applied for the status of religious confessional community. Of the 11, 9 were granted the new status including, for example, Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists, and Seventh-Day Adventists. The Church of Scientology and the Hindu Mandir Association withdrew their applications. The Hindu Mandir Association reapplied under the name Hindu Religious Community. The Ministry rejected the application of the Sahaja Yoga group.

The nine religious groups that have constituted themselves as confessional communities according to the 1998 law are: Jehovah's Witnesses, the Baha'i Faith, the Baptists, the Evangelical Alliance, the Movement for Religious Renewal, the Pentecostalists, the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Coptic-Orthodox Church, and the Hindu Religious Community.

After the Education Ministry granted Jehovah's Witnesses the status of a confessional community, the group immediately in 1998 requested that it be recognized as a religious group under the 1874 law. The Education Ministry denied the application on the basis that, as a confessional community, Jehovah's Witnesses would need to submit to the required 10-year observation period. The group has appealed this decision to the Constitutional Court, arguing that a 10-year observation period is unconstitutional. A decision is expected in 2000.

Proponents of the law describe it as an opportunity for religious groups to become registered officially as religious organizations, providing them with a government "quality seal." However, numerous religious groups not recognized by the State, as well as some religious law experts dismiss the purported benefits of obtaining status under the new law and have complained that the new law's additional criteria for recognition under the 1874 law obstruct claims to recognition and formalize a second class status for nonrecognized groups. Some experts have questioned the new law's constitutionality.

Religious associations that do not qualify for either religious society or confessional community status may apply to become associations, under the 1951 Law on Associations. Associations are corporations under private law and have many of the same rights as confessional communities, including the right to purchase real estate.

The Government provides subsidies to private schools run by any of the 12 officially recognized religions.

Religious Demography

According to the Ministry of Education and Culture, as of August 2000, the memberships of the 12 officially recognized religions are as follows: Roman Catholic Church--78.14 percent; Lutheran Church (Augsburger and Helvetic Confessions)--5 percent; Islamic community--2.04 percent; Old Catholic Church--0.24 percent; Jewish community--0.09 percent; Eastern Orthodox (Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarian)--1.5 percent; Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons)--0.2 percent; New Apostolic Church--0.2 percent; Syrian Orthodox Church--under 0.1 percent; Armenian-Apostolic Church--under 0.1 percent; Methodist Church of Austria--under 0.1 percent; Buddhist community--under 0.1 percent. Approximately 2 percent of the population belong to nonrecognized "other faiths," while 8.64 percent consider themselves atheists. Four percent did not indicate a religious affiliation. Only about 17 percent of Roman Catholics actively participate in formal religious services. According to the Catholic Church, 44,359 Catholics left the Church in 1999, an increase of 14 percent over the previous year.

The provinces of Carinthia and Burgenland have somewhat higher percentages of Protestants than the national average, as the Counter-Reformation was less successful in those areas. The number of Muslims is higher than the national average in Vienna and the province of Vorarlberg, due to the higher share of guestworkers from Turkey in these provinces.

The vast majority of groups termed "sects" by the Government are small organizations, having under 100 members. Among the larger groups are the Church of Scientology, with between 5,000 and 10,000 members, and the Unification Church, with approximately 700 adherents throughout the country. Other groups found in the country include: Brahma Kumaris, Divine Light Mission, Divine Light Center, Eckankar, Hare Krishna, the Holosophic community, the Osho movement, Sahaja Yoga, Sai Baba, Sri Chinmoy, Transcendental Meditation, Landmark Education, the Center for Experimental Society Formation, Fiat Lux, Universal Life, and the Family.

Governmental Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government continued its information campaign against religious sects considered potentially harmful to the interests of individuals and society. In September 1999, the Ministry for Social Security and Generations issued a new edition of a controversial brochure that described numerous nonrecognized religious groups in negative terms, which many of the groups deemed offensive. This brochure includes information on Jehovah's Witnesses, despite its status as a confessional community. On April 6, 2000, the new Minster for Social Security and Generations, Elisabeth Sickl, a Freedom Party (FPO) member, announced plans to support the training of "specialists" among teachers and youth leaders in order to sensitize them to the dangers posed by some nonrecognized religious groups to the young. She also pledged to include representatives from provincial governments in an interministerial working group to decide on measures to "protect citizens from the damaging influence of sects, cults, and esoteric movements." These statements were interpreted in some circles as evidence that the rightwing Freedom Party's participation in government may strengthen efforts to curb the role of nonrecognized religious groups. The Federal Office on Sects continues to collect and distribute information on organizations considered sects. Under the law, this office has independent status, but its head is appointed and supervised by the Minister for Social Security and Generations.

In April 1999, the conservative Austrian People's Party (OeVP) convention formally accepted a decision made by the party's executive board in 1997 that party membership is incompatible with membership in a sect.

With the installation in February 2000 of a new right-of-center coalition government made up of the OeVP and the FPO, there was increased concern among members of minority religions that the general atmosphere of tolerance in the country is deteriorating. The former head of the Freedom Party, Jorg Haider, repeatedly has made statements deemed intolerant and anti-Semitic. While he has expressed regret for any offense caused by his statements, there is a widespread belief that Haider and the Freedom Party have contributed to a climate of intolerance.

There were no reports of complaints by members of the Unification Church of discrimination and harassment by the police and the public during the period covered by this report.

Although in the past nonrecognized religious groups have had problems obtaining resident permits for foreign religious workers, administrative procedures adopted in 1997 have addressed this problem in part. The Austrian Evangelical Alliance, the umbrella organization for nonrecognized Christian organizations, has reported no significant problems in obtaining visas for religious workers. While visas for religious workers of recognized religions are not subject to a numerical quota, visas for religious workers who are members of nonrecognized religions do have a numerical cap; however, this appears to be sufficient to meet current demand.

In October 1999, the Constitutional Court ruled that denying prisoners who are members of Jehovah's Witnesses access to pastoral care because the organization was not a recognized religious society was a violation of the Constitution's provisions on religious freedom. The verdict stressed that pastoral care should be available to any person of any religious belief. Following this verdict, the Justice Ministry issued a decree on February 28, 2000, in which it instructed prisons to make pastoral care available to prisoners who are members of Jehovah's Witnesses.

It remains unclear how the Constitutional Court verdict affects prisoners of other religious confessions, in particular those who are members of neither a recognized religious society nor a confessional community. Access of the clergy of nonrecognized religious societies to hospitals and the military chaplaincy continue to be an area of concern.

The Government offers funding for religious instruction in public schools and churches for children belonging to any of the 12 officially recognized religions. A minimum of three children is required to form a class. In some cases, officially recognized religions decide that the administrative cost of providing religious instruction is too great to warrant providing such courses in all schools. Unless students age 14 and over (or their parents for children under age 14) formally withdraw from religious instruction (if offered in their religion) at the beginning of the academic year, attendance is mandatory.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Relations among the 12 officially recognized religious groups are generally amicable. Fourteen Christian churches, among them the Roman Catholic Church, various Protestant confessions, and eight Orthodox and old-oriental churches are engaged in a dialog in the framework of the so-called "Ecumenical Council of Austrian Churches." The Baptists and the Salvation Army have observer status in the Council. The international Catholic organization "Pro Oriente," which promotes a dialog with the Orthodox churches, also is active in the country.

The Austrian Roman Catholic Church traditionally has been active in fostering amicable relations and promoting a dialog among the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic communities. The international Catholic group "Pax Christi," which pursues efforts toward international interreligious understanding with projects involving Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism, has an Austrian chapter.

There were no reports of violence or vigilante action against members of religious minorities. However, there is widespread societal mistrust and discrimination against members of some nonrecognized religious groups, particularly those considered to be sects. Austrians perceive such groups as exploiting the vulnerable for monetary gain, recruiting and brainwashing youth, promoting antidemocratic ideologies, and denying the legitimacy of government authority. Societal discrimination of sects is, at least in part, fostered by the Government (see Section I).

In June 2000, the pastor of the English-speaking United Methodist Church of Austria stated that there had been several instances of discrimination against the Methodist Church because of the inaccurate belief that it was not a recognized religion, and therefore qualified as a "sect." Members of the Methodist Church have been denied access to prisoners in some jails and have had problems reserving hotels for religious retreats.

A number of recent incidents indicate that sensitivity to Scientology in the country remains high. In November 1999 and June 2000, a U.S. singer experienced harassment by an anti-Scientology group at two of his performances. The American previously had supported the Church of Scientology at events; however since 1998 he no longer publicly has supported the organization. Police authorities fined the demonstrators and offered police protection for the singer's next appearances. In October 1999, Austrian Telekom, the largest telephone company in the country, transferred a computer specialist from a sensitive position in an emergency-phone-line coordination office to a comparable, nonsensitive position. The company became concerned about the employee's access to sensitive information following media reports that he was a high-ranking Scientologist.

The head of the Lutheran Church in Burgenland, Gertrude Knoll, who spoke out against intolerance and xenophobia at a February 19, 2000 political demonstration, was subjected to hate mail and threats against herself and her family. A petition also was organized, calling for her removal from office. Some citizens, including members of the Burgenland Lutheran Church, considered it inappropriate for a church leader to speak out on political issues. It was widely assumed, but never proven, that FPO supporters were behind the hate campaign.

The leader of the country's Jewish community reported that persons within the community who had taken a stand against racism and xenophobia (including himself) had been subjected to verbal and written threats. The FPO's repeated remarks concerning National Socialism reportedly led some members of the Jewish community to consider leaving the country.

According to the Interior Ministry's 1999 annual report on rightwing extremism, there was an increase in the number of complaints about anti-Semitic incidents. Compared with 1998, the number of complaints increased by 87.5 percent, from 8 to 15.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy follows religious developments and reports on them regularly. The Embassy monitors the Government's adherence to commitments to religious tolerance and freedom of expression as part of its evaluation of the new Government's policies and its efforts to encourage the Government to adhere to the commitments to diversity and freedom of expression outlined in the preamble of the new Government's program.

The U.S. Ambassador regularly meets with religious and political leaders to reinforce the U.S. Government's commitment to religious freedom and tolerance. The Ambassador and other members of the Embassy have met repeatedly with Ariel Muzicant and Gertrude Knoll regarding the threats against them and their concerns about the new Government. Following these threats, the Ambassador met with Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel to convey the concerns of the U.S. Government. The Ambassador also raised concerns about Minister Sickl's intentions to enhance the role of the Office on Sects. The Deputy Chief of Mission and members of the political section maintain strong contacts with political leaders and members of the various religious communities. The Embassy's Public Affairs Office highlights issues involving religious freedom and tolerance in the majority of its programs. The Embassy consistently urged the Government to respect its commitments to religious freedom and discussed the concerns of nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) and religious communities regarding the Government's policies towards religion.

The Ambassador regularly hosts events in support of tolerance and pluralism. In May 2000, the Ambassador participated in the annual commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust at the Matthausen concentration camp. In April 2000, the Ambassador hosted an event at her residence featuring U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos, who is a Holocaust survivor. This event included members of the Government, religious leaders, and other opinion makers. It focused on religious and racial tolerance, including a screening of a documentary on Holocaust survivors. In February 2000, the Ambassador hosted a benefit conference to raise money for the renovation of St. Stephen's Cathedral. She utilized the event to focus on the issues of ecumenical partnerships to combat intolerance. Following a December 1999 unveiling of a statue symbolizing tolerance, the Ambassador hosted a reception for government officials and representatives from NGO's concerned with minorities, tolerance, and issues of genocide prevention.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).

See alsoEdit