International Religious Freedom Report 2004 - Austria

International Religious Freedom Report 2004 - Austria (2004)
United States Department of State
84534International Religious Freedom Report 2004 - Austria2004United States Department of State

International Religious Freedom Report 2004, 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, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, there is some societal mistrust and discrimination against members of some nonrecognized religious groups, particularly those referred to as "sects." There was no marked deterioration in the atmosphere of religious tolerance in the country during the period covered by this report.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 32,382 square miles, and its population is an estimated 8.0 million. The largest minority groups are Croatian, Slovene, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak, and Roma. In the past several years, the country has experienced a rise in immigration from countries such as Turkey and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which has increased the number of Muslims in the country.

According to the 2001 census, membership in major religions are as follows: Roman Catholic Church--74.0 percent; Lutheran and Presbyterian churches (Evangelical Church - Augsburger and Helvetic confessions)–-4.7 percent; Islamic community–-4.2 percent; Jewish community--0.1 percent; Eastern Orthodox (Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, and Bulgarian)–-2.2 percent; other Christian churches–-0.9 percent; other non-Christian religious groups–-0.2 percent. Atheists accounted for 12 percent; 2 percent did not indicate a religious affiliation.

The vast majority of groups termed "sects" by the Government are small organizations with fewer than 100 members. Among the larger groups are the Church of Scientology, with between 5,000 and 6,000 members, and the Unification Church, with approximately 700 adherents throughout the country. Other groups found in the country include Divine Light Mission, 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.

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 number of guest workers from Turkey in these provinces.

Approximately 17 percent of Roman Catholics actively participate in formal religious services.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

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

The Government is secular. The Roman Catholic Church is the predominant religion in Austria; many Roman Catholic holidays are also government holidays.

The status of religious organizations is governed by the 1874 Law on Recognition of Churches and by the 1998 Law on the Status of Religious Confessional Communities, which establishes the status of "confessional communities." Religious organizations may be divided into three legal categories (listed in descending order of status): Officially recognized religious societies, religious confessional communities, and associations. Each category of organizations possesses a distinct set of rights, privileges, and responsibilities.

Recognition as a religious society under the 1874 law has wide-ranging implications, such as the authority to participate in the mandatory church contributions program, to provide religious instruction in public schools, and to bring into the country 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 confessional communities and associations. The Government provides financial support for religious teachers at both public and private schools to religious societies but not to other religious organizations. The Government provides financial support to private schools run by any of the 13 officially recognized religious societies.

The Government recognizes 13 religious bodies as religious societies under the 1874 law: The Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant churches (Lutheran and Presbyterian, called "Augsburger" and "Helvetic" confessions), the Islamic community, the Old Catholic Church, the Jewish community, the Eastern Orthodox Church (Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, and Bulgarian), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the New Apostolic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Methodist Church of Austria, the Buddhist community, and the Coptic Orthodox Church.

In 1998, when the Law on the Status of Religious Confessional Communities took effect, there were 12 recognized religious societies. Although the law allowed religious societies to retain their status, it imposed new criteria on other religious groups that seek to achieve this status, including a 20-year period of existence (at least 10 of which must be as a group organized as a confessional community under the 1998 law) and membership equaling at least two one-thousandths of the country's population (approximately 16,000 persons). Only 4 of the 13 recognized religious groups would meet this membership requirement. Of nonrecognized religious groups, only the Jehovah's Witnesses now meet this latter membership requirement.

The 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 at least 300 members and submit to the Government their written statutes describing the goals, rights, and obligations of members, as well as membership regulations, officials, and financing. Groups also must submit a written version of their religious doctrine, which must differ from that of any religious society recognized under the 1874 law or any confessional community established under the 1998 law. The Ministry of Education then examines the doctrine for a determination that the group's basic beliefs do not violate public security, public order, health and morals, or the rights and freedoms of citizens.

Religious confessional communities, once they are recognized 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. A religious group that seeks to obtain this new status is subject to a 6-month period from the time of application to the Ministry of Education and Culture. According to the Ministry, by the end of 2003, 13 groups had applied for the status of religious confessional community, and 11 were granted the new status. The Church of Scientology and the Hindu Mandir Association withdrew their applications. The Hindu Mandir Association reapplied under the name Hindu Religious Community and was granted the new status. The Ministry rejected the application of the Sahaja Yoga group in 1998. The Constitutional Court confirmed the decision in 2002, as did the Administrative Court in 2003.

The 10 religious groups that have constituted themselves as confessional communities according to the law are the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Baha'i Faith, the Baptists, the Evangelical Alliance, the Movement for Religious Renewal, the Free Christian Community (Pentecostalists), the Pentecostal Community of God, the Seventh-day Adventists, the Hindu Religious Community, and the Mennonites.

Religious groups that do not qualify for either religious society or confessional community status may apply to become associations under the Law of Associations. Associations are corporations under law and have many of the same rights as confessional communities, including the right to own real estate. Some groups have organized as associations, even while applying for recognition as religious societies.

There are no restrictions on missionary activities. Although in the past nonrecognized religious groups had problems obtaining resident permits for foreign religious workers, administrative procedures adopted in 1997 have addressed this problem in part. Visas for religious workers of recognized religions are not subject to a numerical quota. Visas for religious workers who are members of nonrecognized religions are subject to a numerical cap. The Austrian Evangelical Alliance, the umbrella organization for non-recognized Christian organizations, has reported that in some urban centers, particularly Vienna and some cities in Lower Austria, the number of available visas is no longer sufficient to meet demand. However, the alliance is trying to work out a solution with the Ministries of Interior and Labor to find a different visa category that is not quota‑controlled. Members of the Jehovah's Witnesses noted that they have been unable to get a visa for a Tagalog speaker to minister to their Filipino community.

In September 2003, the Government opened the first Buddhist cemetery in Europe within Vienna's Central Cemetery. In February, the City of Vienna began constructing a new Islamic Cemetery in the District of Liesing.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The 1998 law allowed 12 previously recognized religious societies to retain their status; however, it imposed new criteria on other religious groups that seek to achieve that status. Numerous religious groups that the Government did not recognize, as well as some religious law experts, dismiss the benefits of obtaining status under the 1998 law and have complained that the law's additional criteria for recognition as a religious society obstruct claims to recognition and formalize a second-class status for nonrecognized groups. Some experts have questioned the 1998 law's constitutionality.

Although the Ministry of Education granted Jehovah's Witnesses the status of a confessional community in 1998, they were denied recognition as a religious society under the 1874 law in 1997. An appeal by the Jehovah's Witnesses arguing that the law is illegal on administrative grounds was pending before the Administrative Court at the end of the period covered by this report. The complaint filed by the Jehovah's Witnesses with the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) in 1998, arguing that the group had not yet been granted full status as a religious entity under the law, despite having made numerous attempts for more than two decades, remained pending at the end of the period covered by this report.

The Ministry for Social Security and Generations and the City of Vienna fund a counseling center of a controversial nongovernmental organization (NGO), The Society against Sect and Cult Dangers or "GSK," that actively works against sects and cults. GSK distributes information to schools and the general public and runs a counseling center for those who believe they have been negatively affected by cults or sects.

The Federal Office of Sect Issues continues to function as a counseling center for those who have questions about sects and cults. Under the law, this office has independent status, but the Minister for Social Security and Generations appoints and supervises its head.

Several provinces funded offices that provided information on sects and cults. The website of the Family Office of the Government of Lower Austria no longer included a presentation that negatively characterized many religious groups.

On May 27, Parliament passed an animal protection law prohibiting the slaughtering of animals without anesthesia. For ritual slaughtering, the law permits post-cut anesthesia; in addition, the ritual slaughtering must be carried out by "specially trained" and experienced persons and take place in the presence of a veterinarian.

The conservative Austrian People's Party (OVP) position regarding membership in a sect remained in force during the period covered by this report. Its stated position is that party membership is incompatible with membership in a sect, if the sect holds a fundamentally different view of man than what the Party believes, advocates opinions irreconcilable with the ethical principles of the party, or rejects the basic rights granted by progressively minded constitutional states and an open society. In 1998, the OVP passed a resolution banning members of "sects" from being members of the party. This resolution was passed to target an Austrian Scientologist who was at the time a respected member of his local party organization and his local community. There are no known reports of other sects being denied membership in the party.

Prisoners who belong to nonrecognized religious groups are entitled to pastoral care. Some groups have reported experiencing problems with access to pastoral care in isolated instances; however, there are no allegations of widespread problems.

The Government provides funding for religious instruction in public schools and places of worship for children belonging to any of the 13 officially recognized religious societies. The Government does not offer such funding to nonrecognized religious groups. A minimum of three children is required to form a class. In some cases, religious societies decide that the administrative cost of providing religious instruction is too great to warrant providing such courses in all schools. Unless students 14 years of age and over (or their parents in the case of children under the age of 14) formally withdraw from religious instruction (if offered in their religion) at the beginning of the academic year, attendance is mandatory.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

Forced Religious Conversion

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

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Relations among the 13 officially recognized religious societies 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 dialogue in the framework of the 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 dialogue with the Orthodox churches, also is active in the country.

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

There were no reports of violence or vigilante action against members of religious minorities. However, some societal mistrust and discrimination continues against members of some nonrecognized religious groups, particularly against those considered to be members of sects. A large portion of the public perceives such groups as exploiting the vulnerable for monetary gain, recruiting and brainwashing youth, promoting antidemocratic ideologies, and denying the legitimacy of government authority. Some observers believe the existence of and the activities of the Federal Office of Sect Issues and similar offices at the state level foster societal discrimination against minority religious groups.

The NGO Forum gegen Antisemitismus (the Forum against Anti-Semitism) reported 108 anti-Semitic incidents in 2003, including 2 attacks involving extreme violence and 2 others that involved some violence. However, members of the Jewish community stated that these numbers are not necessarily representative of the level of anti-Semitism in the country. In a report on anti-Semitism, the European Union's Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia stated that anti-Semitism in the country is characterized by diffuse and traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes rather than by acts of physical aggression.

In response to the Austrian Jewish Community's (IKG) severe financial problems, the provinces committed themselves to pay $10,976,400 (9 million euro) as advance payment of the total of $21,952,800 (18 million euro) earmarked for the IKG as compensation for property confiscated from the Jewish population during the National Socialist era. The Federal Government provides annual loans of $935,550 (770,000 euro) to the IKG.

The Government strictly enforces its anti-neo-Nazi legislation, which prohibits neo-Nazi acts, including incitement to neo-Nazi activity and the glorification of National Socialism. The Government also provides police protection for Jewish Community institutions.

Muslims have complained about incidents of societal discrimination and verbal harassment. Several incidences of discrimination against Muslim women wearing headscarves in schools were reported since June 2003. In October 2003, a teacher at a fashion institute removed the headscarf of a Muslim girl during class, claiming that it posed a danger to her safety. Court-sponsored mediation later determined that she could not be prohibited from wearing a headscarf. In a decree issued in January, a high school in the state of Upper Austria prohibited students from covering their heads in school. A Muslim parent filed a complaint against discrimination with the local police authorities, who ordered that his daughter be allowed to wear a headscarf. The head of the Upper Austrian State School Council and the Ministry of Education confirmed that Muslim girls and women had the right, according to legal provisions on religious freedom, to wear headscarves. Police have not identified any potential suspects for the December 2002 desecration of a Muslim cemetery in Traun. No Muslim cemeteries were desecrated during the period covered by this report.

The media covered the publication of a study by GSK stating that sect and cult groups had approached "every second teenager" in the state of Lower Austria. The Government of Lower Austria co‑sponsored the study and covered its release on its homepage. A CD Rom on sects called "In Search of Meaning" conceived by the Catholic diocese of Linz and distributed by the Government of the State of Upper Austria since early 2002 has been discontinued. By the end of the period covered by this report, sects were involved in the drafting of their own profiles.

The Church of Scientology has reported that individual Scientologists have experienced discrimination in hiring.

Compulsory school curricula provides for antibias and tolerance education as part of the civics education, and as a focus across various subjects, including history and German classes. The Ministry of Education also conducts training projects with the Anti-Defamation League in this context.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall policy to promote human rights.

The U.S. Embassy monitors the Government's adherence to religious tolerance and freedom of expression as part of its evaluation of the Government's policies and commitments to freedom of expression. The Ambassador and other Embassy officers regularly meet with religious and political leaders to reinforce the U.S. Government's commitment to religious freedom and tolerance and to discuss the concerns of NGOs and religious communities regarding the Government's policies towards religion.

Embassy officials regularly meet with government officials, NGOs, and leaders of religious organizations to discuss the status of religious freedom in the country. American representatives repeatedly voice their concerns to the Government on the strict requirements for religious recognition in the country.

During the period covered by this report, the Embassy maintained an active dialogue with members of the Jewish and Muslim Communities, the Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Church of Scientology.

The Embassy highlights religious freedom and tolerance in its programs. On March 1, the Embassy hosted the fourth in a series of roundtable discussions with the Turkish and Muslim community in Austria. It brought a representative of the Turkish-American society to Vienna to discuss integration issues with the Turkish‑Austrian community. Approximately 100 members of the Turkish Muslim Community attended and asked questions about life for Turkish Muslims in the U.S.

In March, an Embassy-nominated Turkish-Austrian participated in the International Visitors Program to study "Managing Diversity in a Multi-Ethnic Society."

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).

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