U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999 - Austria

Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government 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 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.

Religious organizations may be divided into three different legal categories (listed in descending order of status): officially recognized religious societies, religious confessional communities, and clubs.

Under the law, religious societies have "public law 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. Among the many benefits provided to religious societies that are not granted to other religious organizations are: state subsidies for salaries of members of the clergy, state subsidies for religious teachers (at both public and private schools), and access of the clergy to hospitals, prisons, and the military chaplaincy.

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 have languished in the Ministry of Education and Culture, in some cases for years. 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.

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 waiting 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 observation period (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.

In a decision issued in March 1998, the Constitutional Court voided the Education Ministry's decision on Jehovah's Witnesses and ordered a new decision based on 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.

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.

Proponents of the law describe it as an opportunity for religious groups to become officially registered 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. 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 "clubs." This status is granted relatively freely, although clubs do not have legal standing and are unable to purchase property, churches, or engage in other activities permitted to the other two legal categories.

According to the 1991 census, the membership of the 12 officially recognized religions is 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.

The provinces of Carinthia and Burgenland have somewhat higher percentages of Protestants than the national average, as the Counter-Reformation in the Middle Ages 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.

Over 200 groups termed "sects" by the Government are represented in Vienna alone. The vast majority of these groups have 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.

In 1998 and into the first half of 1999, the Government continued its information campaign against religious sects considered potentially harmful to individuals and society. As part of the campaign, the Ministry for Family, Youth, and Environment initiated a new Federal Office on Sects, which is responsible for collecting and providing information on sects active in the country. From 1996 through the middle of 1998, the Ministry widely distributed a brochure, now out of print, describing numerous nonrecognized religious groups in negative terms found offensive by many of the groups listed. In addition to the Ministry for Family, Youth, and Environment, the Austrian Bar Association, the Association of Austrian Psychologists, and crisis hotline contacts, the brochure referred readers to the Catholic and Lutheran churches for further advice on sects.

In January 1998, the Minister for Family sent a letter to the national newspaper association, urging its members not to run Scientology advertisements on the basis that they would undermine the efforts of the Ministry's Federal Office on Sects.

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. This policy led to the resignation of a local OeVP official in 1997. In July 1998, the city government of the provincial capital Innsbruck denied permission for a concert sponsored by Scientologists, referring to a "ban on Scientology-sponsored activities" stipulated in a 1997 city government decision.

Shortly after the April 1999 OeVP decision, a member of the Provincial Parliament of Upper Austria called for a requirement that civil service applicants sign a declaration that they are not members of the Church of Scientology and that they do not support the Church's goals. False statements would be grounds for disqualification or rejection from the applicants' employment pool. Any person who was already employed and found to be a member of the Church of Scientology would be dismissed.

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 Government funds religious instruction in public schools and churches for children belonging to any of the 12 officially recognized religions. Attendance at such instruction is not mandatory. The Government also provides subsidies to private schools run by any of the 12 officially recognized religions.

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.

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 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 between 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 referred to as 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 April 1999, a Jewish cemetery in Graz, the provincial capital of Styria, was desecrated. The thus far unknown perpetrators wrote anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans and symbols on 12 tombstones. It is suspected that the desecration was connected with Adolf Hitler's birthday on April 20. Police are investigating the incident.

The second suspect in the desecration of the Jewish cemetery in Eisenstadt in 1993 has not been apprehended. The investigation is apparently no longer being actively pursued.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy follows closely religious developments and reports on them regularly. The Ambassador has met with the highest representative of the country's Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Schoenborn, and with the president of the Jewish community, Dr. Ariel Muzicant to discuss the situation of recognized and nonrecognized religious groups in the country. On a working level, embassy officers have met with representatives of the Government, Parliament, nongovernmental organizations (NGO's), and religious groups to convey concerns that the country strictly observe its commitments to religious freedom. The Embassy currently is focusing on the implementation of the two new 1998 laws on religion – the law on the status of confessional communities and the law creating the Office on Sects. The Ambassador has expressed U.S. concern about the laws to the Minister for Family, Youth, and Environment, the Minister for Education and Culture, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Political Director, and other high level government officials and parliamentarians. The Ambassador also has written to President Thomas Klestil about the matter.

In January 1998 and March 1999, representatives from the U.S. Helsinki Commission and (in March 1999 only) from the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, accompanied by an embassy officer, discussed the new legislation with government officials, parliamentarians, academics, and representatives from a number of the country's nonrecognized religions, as well as the Catholic Church. The representatives raised U.S. concerns that the January 1998 law addressing the status of confessional communities and the 1998 law creating the Family Ministry's Federal Office on Sects do not comply with the country's international obligations, such as the 1950 European Human Rights Convention, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) commitments. The U.S. Government has also conveyed its concerns publicly and privately in OSCE forums.

The Embassy's consular section has worked for years to broker a visa/work solution for American religious workers who belong to nonrecognized groups. These groups lack official status to sponsor workers from outside the European Economic area (European Union countries plus Liechtenstein, Norway, and Iceland).

In November 1998, the Ambassador hosted a reception for high level government officials and Austrian contacts with a private concert in support of religious freedom. The United States Information Service (USIS) organized the event and provided media support. In December 1998, the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles held a conference in Vienna on "The Sources of Hate." The conference was attended by religious leaders and academics from around the world, including the U.S. In March 1999, the Embassy's Deputy Chief of Mission delivered a speech at a Kosovo Peace and Tolerance Conference organized under the auspices of Rabbi Arthur Schneier's Appeal of Conscience Foundation based in New York. The conference gathered religious leaders from Kosovo and other countries in an effort to work out a statement of principles aimed at reconciliation among the Muslim, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic communities in Kosovo. During both conferences, USIS provided significant media support and placed conference principles and U.S. Government official speeches in the Washington File, which is distributed worldwide.

The Annual Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom describes the status of religious freedom in each foreign country, and government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world. It is submitted in compliance with P.L. 105-292 (105th Congress) and is cited as the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

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