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U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2002 - Austria

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 7 October 2002
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2002 - Austria , 7 October 2002, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3da3f08120.html [accessed 21 December 2014]
Comments This report is submitted to the Congress by the Department of State in compliance with Section 102(b) of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998. The law provides that the Secretary of State, with the assistance of the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, shall transmit to Congress "an Annual Report on International Religious Freedom supplementing the most recent Human Rights Reports by providing additional detailed information with respect to matters involving international religious freedom." This Annual Report includes 195 reports on countries worldwide. The 2002 Report covers the period from July 1, 2001, to June 30, 2002.
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

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." 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 8.1 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 Ministry of Education and Culture, 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 – less than 0.1 percent; Armenian-Apostolic Church—less than 0.1 percent; Methodist Church of Austria – less than 0.1 percent; and Buddhist community – less than 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.

In 2001 the Government conducted a national census that required persons to state their religious affiliation, which was criticized by many civil libertarians. Results of the census are expected to be released in early 2003.

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.

Only approximately 17 percent of Roman Catholics actively participate in formal religious services. According to the Catholic Church, 34,997 Catholics left the Church in 2001, compared to 36,512 in 2000.

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.

Religious recognition under the 1874 law has wide-ranging implications, such as the authority to participate in the state-collected religious taxation program, to engage in religious education, 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 other religious organizations. The Constitution singles out religious societies for special recognition. State subsidies for religious teachers at both public and private schools are provided to religious societies but not granted to other religious organizations.

Previously some nonrecognized religious groups were able to organize as legal entities or associations, although this was not possible for all groups. Some groups have organized, even while applying for recognition as religious communities under the 1874 law.

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 churches that seek to achieve this status, including a 10-year observation period between the time of the application and the time it is granted.

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; 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 or registered under the 1874 law or registered under the 1998 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 1998 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 1998 law) and membership equaling at least 2 one-thousandths of the country's population. Many religious groups and independent congregations do not meet the 300-member threshold for registration; only Jehovah's Witnesses meet the higher membership requirement for recognition. 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 observation period before they are eligible for recognition. In April 2001, the Constitutional Court upheld a previous Education Ministry finding that Jehovah's Witnesses must fulfill the required 10-year observation period.

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 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, at the end of the period covered by this report, 13 organizations 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. The Ministry rejected the application of the Sahaja Yoga group in 1998.

The 11 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 Coptic-Orthodox Church, the Hindu Religious Community, and the Mennonites.

Religious associations 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 12 officially recognized religions.

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. 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 demand.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The 1998 law allowed 12 previously recognized religious societies to retain their status; however, it imposed new criteria on other churches 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 under the 1874 law 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 and the group immediately 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 appealed this decision to the Constitutional Court, arguing that a 10-year observation 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. In 1998 Jehovah's Witnesses also filed a complaint with the European Court for Human Rights, 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. Decisions on both appeals still were pending at the end of the period covered by this report.

The Government continued its information campaign against religious sects considered potentially harmful to the interests of individuals and society. In 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. 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. The Federal Office on Sects has stated it intends to expand its staff to keep up with an increasing workload. According to its report to Parliament submitted in mid-2001 on its operations in 2000, the office received 3,953 inquiries regarding 231 different groups.

The Catholic Diocese of Linz, in conjunction with the provincial government of Upper Austria, has distributed a CD-ROM entitled "The Search for Meaning: an Orientation Guide to Organizations that Offer the Solution," which contains a strong endorsement by the Deputy Governor of the province. The CD-ROM includes information on a wide range of recognized and unrecognized religions ranging from the Roman Catholic Church to the Church of Scientology. It also contains criticism of recognized religions such as the Mormon religion and religious associations such as Jehovah's Witnesses. It has received a critical reception by unrecognized religious groups who find it derogatory and offensive to be lumped together with Satanic cults; the CD-ROM includes a testimonial from a man who is a former member of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

In the fall of 2001, there was concern among the Muslim community that there would be an increase in attacks on Muslims and their property. Although there were no attacks, some societal discrimination continued (See Section II). The Islamic Religious Community credits the long history of cooperation between the Government and Islam, which began during the last century. The Government also sent a strong statement against discrimination by repeatedly stating that the fight against terror was not a fight against Islam.

On April 3, 2002, the Jewish and Islamic communities released a joint statement calling for an end to violence in the Middle East. The declaration voiced concern about the spread of violence between Jews and Muslims in Europe. The statement was organized by government officials and was viewed as a symbol of the tolerance and history of cooperation between Jews and Muslims in the country.

The former head of the Freedom Party (FPO) and current Governor of Carinthia, Joerg Haider, repeatedly has made intolerant and anti-Semitic statements. These included verbal attacks against the head of the Jewish Community and a prominent Jewish-American campaign advisor prior to the Vienna local elections in March 2001. Although Haider repeatedly followed such statements with expressions of regret, his statements contributed to the widespread belief that he and some extreme elements of the FPO have contributed to a climate of intolerance in the country.

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

In 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 in 2000 in which it instructed prison officials to make pastoral care available to prisoners who are members of Jehovah's Witnesses. Since this ruling, members of Jehovah's Witnesses have not reported any problems associated with prisoner access and pastoral care.

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. Some groups have reported experiencing problems with access to pastoral care in isolated instances; however, there are no allegations of widespread problems. Access by the clergy of nonrecognized religious societies to hospitals and the military chaplaincy continues to be an area of concern.

The Government provides partial funding for religious instruction in public schools and churches for children belonging to any of the 12 officially recognized religions. 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, 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 14 years of age and over (or their parents for 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 12 officially recognized religious groups are generally amicable. Fourteen Christian churches, among them the Roman Catholic Church, various Protestant confessions, and 8 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 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, there is widespread societal mistrust and discrimination 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 (see Section II).

Muslims have complained about societal discrimination. In Upper Austria, a controversy over a mosque in Traun received widespread press coverage. The mosque was demolished by authorities in March 2001, who cited building code violations. Members of the Muslim community alleged that the violations were only a pretext for authorities. They have reported problems in obtaining a new site for their religious services and believe that this is an attempt to encourage Muslims, most of whom are immigrants, to leave the area. The National Organization of Muslims in Austria has not intervened on behalf of the community in Traun.

Sensitivity to Scientology in the country remains high. The Church of Scientology has reported problems obtaining credit cards, and individual Scientologists have experienced discrimination in hiring.

In October 2001, a 17-year-old boy was charged with vandalizing 28 graves in an Islamic cemetery in Linz. The authorities stated that the boy was motivated by hatred of foreigners. He paid a fine to cover the cost of restoring the damage done to the graves. Two Jewish cemeteries also were desecrated during the period covered by this report. Despite these incidents, according to the Interior Ministry's 2001 annual report on right-wing extremism, there was a decrease for the second year in the number of complaints of anti-Semitic incidents. Compared with 2000, the number of complaints decreased by 67 percent, from 9 to 3.

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 2001, the Embassy made a special attempt to reach out to members of the Islamic community. In March 2001, the U.S. Government issued a statement that strongly criticized Joerg Haider's verbal attack against the leader of the country's Jewish community. The Embassy's Public Affairs Office highlights religious freedom and tolerance in a large number of its programs.

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