U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2001 - 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." Initially the installation of a new right-of-center coalition Government in February 2000 led to by members of minority religions expressing concerns over increased intolerance. 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. Approximately 98 percent of the population are of Germanic origin. The largest minority groups are Croatian, Slovene, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak, and Roma. In recent 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 – 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.

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 a 1998 law that 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.

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 law on the status of religious confessional communities came into effect in January 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 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 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 1998 law. Only Jehovah's Witnesses currently meet the higher membership requirement for recognition under the 1874 law. 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 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 June 30, 2001, 11 organizations had applied for the status of religious confessional community. Nine 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 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.

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 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 current 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 State, 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. The group also has filed an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

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.

Despite initial fears that the inclusion of the Freedom Party (FPO) in government would lead to a decrease in tolerance for nonrecognized religious groups, the situation regarding religious freedom did not change significantly during the period covered by this report. In April 2000, then Minister for Social Security and Generations, Elisabeth Sickl (FPO), announced additional measures to "protect citizens from the damaging influence of sects, cults, and esoteric movements"; however, no new measures were implemented during her tenure. Sickl left office in October 2000 and her successor has announced no new initiatives on this subject by the end of the period covered by this report.

The former head of the Freedom Party and current Governor of Carinthia, Joerg Haider, repeatedly has made intolerant and anti-Semitic statements, including during the period covered by this report. These included verbal attacks against the head 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.

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

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 on February 28, 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 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 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 Government's 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 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 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 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 against sects is, at least in part, fostered by the Government (see Section II).

The English-speaking United Methodist Church of Austria reported no incidents of discrimination during the period covered by this report.

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 the practice of Scientology in the country remains high. The Church of Scientology has reported problems in opening bank accounts, now resolved, and obtaining credit cards. Individual Scientologists have experienced discrimination in hiring. In June 2000, a singer who previously was affiliated with the Church of Scientology was harassed at his performances. Police fined the demonstrators and offered police protection to the singer. In October 1999, Austria Telekom transferred a computer specialist from a sensitive position in an emergency-phone-line coordination office to a comparable but nonsensitive position due to concerns over his access to sensitive information.

Following the inclusion of the FPO in the Government, there were incidents involving members of various religious groups. In February 2000, the head of the Lutheran Church in Burgenland was subjected to hate mail and threats after she spoke out against intolerance and xenophobia. In 2000 the leader of the country's Jewish community also reported that several members of the community were subjected to verbal and written threats after taking a stand against racism and xenophobia.

According to the Interior Ministry's 2000 annual report on rightwing extremism, there was a decrease in the number of complaints of anti-Semitic incidents. Compared with 1999, the number of complaints decreased by 40 percent, from 15 to 9 complaints.

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.

In September 2000, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted resolution HR 588, criticizing the country, among others, because of "conscious propaganda against religious minorities."

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 regularly meets 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 (NGO's) and religious communities regarding the Government's policies towards religion. 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. In July 2000, the Ambassador met with the Minister for Social Security and Generations to stress U.S. views on the problems inherent in the country's laws on religion as well as the work of its Office on Sects. The Ambassador previously had discussed the same issue with the Chancellor. Other officials at the Embassy maintain close contact with political leaders and members of the various religious communities. The Embassy's Public Affairs Office highlights religious freedom and tolerance in the majority of its programs.

The International Religious Freedom Report for 2001 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 shall transmit to Congress by September 1 of each year, or the first day thereafter on which the appropriate House of Congress is in session, "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." The 2001 Report covers the period from July 1, 2000 to June 30, 2001.

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