International Religious Freedom Report 2003 - Austria

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International Religious Freedom Report 2003 - Austria  (2003) 
United States Department of State
Released by the United States Department of State, on December 18, 2003

International Religious Freedom Report 2003, 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 in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.


Section I. Religious Demography


The country has a total area of 32,368 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, the memberships in major religions are as follows: Roman Catholic Church--74.0 percent; Lutheran Church (Augsburger and Helvetic Confessions)ñ-4.7 percent; Islamic Communityñ-4.2 percent; Jewish Community--0.1 percent; Eastern Orthodox (Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, and Bulgarian)ñ-2.2 percent; other Christian churchesñ-0.9 percent; other non-Christian religious groupsñ-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 less 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: the 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.

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 guestworkers 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 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.

Religious recognition 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. State subsidies for religious teachers at both public and private schools are provided to religious societies but not granted to other religious organizations.

Religious groups not recognized as religious societies under the 1874 law may choose to organize as associations under the Law of Associations. Some groups have organized as associations, even while applying for recognition as religious societies.

When the Law on the Status of Religious Confessional Communities came into effect in 1998, there were 12 recognized religious societies. Although the law allowed these 12 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 people). Of nonrecognized religious groups, only Jehovah's Witnesses meet this latter membership requirement; only 4 of the 13 recognized religious groups would meet the same requirement. Thirteen religious bodies are currently recognized as religious societies under the 1874 law: The Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church (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 Jehovah's Witnesses received the status of a confessional community. According to the law, after receiving such status, the group is subject to a 10-year period of existence as a confessional community under the 1998 law before they are eligible for recognition as a religious society. In April 2001, the Constitutional Court upheld a previous Education Ministry finding that Jehovah's Witnesses must fulfill the required 10-year waiting period.

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 doctrine is then examined 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 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. A religious group 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, by the end of 2002, 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 10 religious groups that have constituted themselves as confessional communities according to the law are: 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. In March the Coptic Orthodox Church, which had been granted confessional community status under the 1998 law, became a recognized religious society.

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.

The Government provides subsidies to private schools run by any of the 13 officially recognized 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; however, this appears to be sufficient to meet demand. The Austrian Evangelical Alliance, the umbrella organization for nonrecognized Christian organizations, has reported some delays in obtaining visas for religious workers. 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.

No law expressly prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion in employment.

In June the Government in conjunction with the Austrian Islamic Community hosted a conference in Graz of European Imams and heads of Muslim centers. Approximately 100 representatives of Islamic organizations in Europe attended the conference, which was the first of its kind in Europe.

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 not recognized by the Government, 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.

Following a 1997 denial of recognition and a court appeal, in 1998 the Education Ministry granted Jehovah's Witnesses the status of a confessional community; the group immediately requested recognition as a religious society 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 waiting period. The group appealed this decision to the Constitutional Court, arguing that the requirement for a 10-year waiting period was unconstitutional. In April 2001, the Constitutional Court upheld the Education Ministry's finding. Jehovah's Witnesses filed an appeal with the Administrative Court, arguing that the law is illegal on administrative grounds. That appeal remained pending at the end of the period covered by this report. In 1998 Jehovah's Witnesses also filed a complaint with the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR), 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 2 decades. In June the ECHR examined the case and sent a list of questions to the Government. The Government has until October to respond.

In 2002 the Ministry for Social Security and Generations ceased issuing its controversial brochure on nonrecognized religious groups. However, the Ministry and the City of Vienna were funding a controversial NGO that actively works against sects and cults (the Society against Sect and Cult Dangers.) This NGO 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 its head is appointed and supervised by the Minister for Social Security and Generations. The office's 2002 annual report to Parliament on its operations was not available at the time of this publication.

Several provinces funded offices that provided information on sects and cults. The website of the Family Office of the Government of Lower Austria included a presentation that negatively characterized many religious groups. The presentation included the Jehovah's Witnesses, despite its status as a confessional community.

The Austrian Branch of the International Coalition for Religious Freedom (ICRF) publicly attacked the CD-ROM entitled "The Search for Meaning: an Orientation Guide to Organizations that Offer the Solution." The CD-ROM contained information on a range of recognized and nonrecognized religious groups, including criticism of the Church of Latter-day Saints and Jehovah's Witnesses. The CD-ROM had been issued by the Catholic Diocese of Linz and contained a strong endorsement by the Deputy Governor of Upper Austria. In response to the ICRF's allegations, the Deputy Governor noted that the CD-ROM no longer was being produced. He also agreed that nonrecognized religious groups could submit a description of themselves for use on the Upper Austrian Education Intranet.

The conservative Austrian People's Party (OVP) position that party membership is incompatible with membership in a sect remained in force.

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 prisoners or detainees.

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.


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 dialog 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 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 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. Societal discrimination against sects is, at least in part, fostered by the Government.

Muslims have complained about incidents of societal discrimination. They reported that a school in Vienna distributed a working paper that turned the five pillars of Islam into a preparation for battle. They also have complained of incidents of verbal harassment. In December 2002, the Muslim section of the city cemetery in Traun was vandalized. Approximately 40 gravestones were broken, torn out, or destroyed. Police had not identified any potential suspects at the end of the period covered by this report.

Sensitivity to Scientology in the country remains an issue. The Church of Scientology has reported that individual Scientologists have experienced discrimination in hiring. Scientology leaders complained that their bank account was closed without cause. They also noted that the city government would not give them permission to erect an informational tent on one of the squares in downtown Vienna. However, Scientology leaders also noted that the Vienna Provincial Tax Authority granted them tax-exempt, non-profit status.

The Austrian Jewish Community (IKG) is facing severe financial problems and has requested additional subsidies from the Government. The IKG rejected offers by the Government for interest-free loans, stating the solutions offered were inadequate and did not address the community's long-term financial problems. In a public interview, the head of the Jewish community complained about latent anti-Semitism that occasionally surfaces in the form of phone threats and verbal assaults. During the period covered by this report, there were incidents of desecration of Jewish cemeteries.


Section IV. U.S. Government Policy


The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting 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 nongovernmental organizations and religious communities regarding the Government's policies towards religion. In the fall of 2002 and the spring of 2003, the Embassy made a special attempt to reach out to members of the Islamic community through roundtable discussions and digital videoconferences. The Embassy's Public Affairs Office highlights religious freedom and tolerance in its programs.

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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