Austria's Religious Landscape
Legal basis - Personal rights
Freedom of religion is a statutorily guaranteed right in Austria, the legal foundation – starting with the Patents of Tolerance of 1781/82 – having been created over a period of about two centuries. Of great importance for the individual is the constitutional guarantee of freedom of conscience and creed laid down in Article 14 of the Basic Law on the General Rights of Nationals of 1867. This Article, in combination with the Law Regarding Inter-confessional Relation-ships of 1868, guarantees every resident in Austria the right to join any church or religious community by free choice, to leave such church or religious community at his/her own personal discretion or, finally, to abstain from belonging to any of them. Article 63 paragraph 2 of the State Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye of 1919 as well as Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950 further enhanced and specified the basic right of religious freedom.
By conception, the Austrian legal system is to be qualified as religiously neutral. This principle precludes any identification of the state with a specific church or religious community (principle of religious neutrality). The tasks and objectives of the state are exclusively worldly and non-spiritual (principle of secularity).
The status of a legally recognized church and religious community involves certain guarantees laid down in Article 15 of the Basic Law on the General Rights of Nationals (which also postulates their being subject to the general laws of the nation): the right to practice communal public worship, arrange and administer their “internal” affairs autonomously, and retain possession and enjoyment of their institutions, endowments and funds; and, moreover, the right to found private confessional establishments for instruction and education and provide religious instruction in state schools.
Article 15 of the Basic Law on the General Rights of Nationals defines the general principle of equality in concrete terms, postulating the requirement of equal treatment and non-discrimination (principle of parity).
The exclusive right as a basic principle of Austrian state church law guarantees each legally recognised church or religious community the exclusive right to its designation and its doctrines as well as exclusive pastoral responsibility for its members.
In Austria, state and church are partners on an equal footing, each acknowledging the independence and autonomy of the other. Areas of interaction can, among other things, be regulated by mutual contractual agreements. Legal recognition implies recognition of a church or religious community as a legal personality under public law, endowing it with the status of a body corporate under public law (including legal capacity under private law).
One feature of such entities is their performance of tasks and functions in the public interest, which besides religious functions include social, socio-political and cultural tasks supported by the state, as the state views them as a contribution to the common weal. The principles governing the relationship between state and church were laid down in a number of different enactments. The relationship to the Catholic Church is specified above all by the Concordat of 1933 and a number of further laws that regulate the relationship between the Austrian state and the Holy See in different areas. The Roman Catholic Church enjoys special rights in so far as the Holy See is subject to international law.
Statutory enactments also regulate the state’s relationship to other churches and religious communities: the Protestant Church in the Protestantengesetz of 1961, the Orthodox Church in the Orthodoxengesetz of 1967, the Jewish Religious Association in the Israelitengesetz of 1890 and the Islamic Religious Community in the Islamgesetz of 1912 as amended in 2015. The relationship to the other legally recognized churches and religious communities is regulated on the basis of the Recognition Act of 1874 and the Oriental Orthodox Churches Act of 2003.
The passing of the Federal Law Concerning the Legal Status of Confessional Communities in 1998 marked the creation of a two-tier system. Besides churches and religious communities recognized by statute, confessional communities that are not bodies corporate under public law but which are endowed with a legal personality are entitled to carry the designation “state-registered confessional community”. Conditional on the fulfilment of the legal requirements, legal recognition as a religious community may be granted after twenty years of existence and ten years of registration as a confessional community.
Today there are 14 legally recognized churches and religious communities and 10 state-registered confessional communities in Austria.
Expressions of the basic right of religious freedom
The concept of freedom of religion embraces freedom of creed (right to choice of religion), freedom of public worship (right to religious practice), freedom of confession (right to outward profession of faith) and freedom of conscience.
According to Austrian law (Law on the Religious Education of Children), every young person over the age of fourteen is free to choose his or her religion. Parents have the exclusive right to decide their child’s confession up to the age of ten. Between the ages of ten and twelve, the decision still lies with the parents, but the child has to be “consulted“.
Between the ages of twelve and fourteen a change of confession cannot be imposed on the child against his or her will, and on completion of the fourteenth year of age the youngster “comes of age” in terms of choice of religion. In state schools, all children belonging to a legally recognized church or religious community receive religious education in their own confession, the expense for such education being borne by the state.
In Austria, all citizens are equal before the law and enjoy the same civil and political rights irrespective of their confession. Free exercise of religion and freedom of religion and con-science are guaranteed for everyone in Austria, regardless of whether a church or religious community is legally recognized or not or registered as a confessional community. All churches and religious communities in Austria enjoy special protection under the law: offenses such as the denigration of religious doctrines and the disturbance of a religious event are prosecuted under criminal law; facilities and property dedicated to religious services enjoy enhanced protection under criminal law in cases of theft or willful damage.
Of special importance for the presence of Christian churches in Austrian public life and beyond the national borders is the “Ecumenical Council of Churches in Austria” (ÖRKÖ, www.kirchen.at), which comprises 14 Christian churches including, since 1994, the Roman Catholic Church and ten communities and organisations with observer status.
Moreover, mention should be made of the Pro Oriente Foundation (www.prooriente.at) which has acted as a platform for ongoing fruitful discussions with the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches since 1964. Its establishment is largely due to the contacts Cardinal Franz König, the long-time Archbishop of Vienna, cultivated with the Eastern Churches. Foreign policy initiatives on the Balkan Peninsula have repeatedly involved the support of this platform. Inter-religious dialogue takes place via the “Contact Point for World Religions in Austria” (www.weltreligionen.at), which also regards itself as a forum for the furtherance of relations between the religions.
Religions in Austria
At the end of the 20th century, about 74% of Austria's population were registered as Roman Catholic, while about 5% considered themselves Protestants. Catholicism has gradually declined in Austria over the past decades. As of January 2011, the percentage of catholics in Austria was 64,1% and the percentage of protestants was 3,8%.
Austrian Christians are obliged to pay a mandatory membership fee (calculated by income—about 1%) to their church; this payment is called "Kirchenbeitrag" ("Ecclesiastical/Church contribution"). In 2001, about 12% of the population declared that they have no religion. Of the remaining people, around 340,000 are registered as members of various Muslim communities, mainly due to the influx from Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo. About 180,000 are members of Eastern Orthodox Churches (mostly Serbs), more than 20,000 are active Jehovah's Witnesses, and about 8,100 are Jewish.
The Austrian Jewish Community of 1938—Vienna alone counted more than 200,000—was reduced to around 4,500 during the Second World War, with approximately 65,000 Jewish Austrians killed in the Holocaust and 130,000 emigrating. The large majority of the current Jewish population are post-war immigrants, particularly from eastern Europe and central Asia (including Bukharan Jews). Buddhism was legally recognised as a religion in Austria in 1983.
Overview of legally recognized churches and religious communities in Austria Churches
- Catholic Church: basically Concordat between the Holy See and the Republic of Austria, Federal Law Gazette (BGBl.) II No. 2/1934
- Protestant Church A. and H.C. in Austria: Protestant Act, 1961, Federal Law Gazette (BGBl.) No.182/1961
- Greek Oriental (i.e. Greek Orthodox) Church in Austria: Orthodox Act, 1967, Federal Law Gazette (BGBl.) No. 229/1967
- Greek Oriental Metropolis of Austria
- Greek Oriental (i.e. Greek Orthodox) Church Community of the Holy Trinity
- Greek Oriental (i.e. Greek Orthodox) Church Community of St. George
- Serbian Greek Oriental (i.e. Serbian Orthodox) Church Community of St. Sava
- Romanian Greek Oriental (i.e. Romanian Orthodox) Church Community of the Holy Resurection
- Russian Orthodox Church Community of St. Nicolas o Bulgarian Orthodox Church Community of St. Ivan Rilski
Churches subject to the Oriental Orthodox Churches Act of 2003, Federal Law Gazette (BGBl.) No. 20/2003:
- Armenian Apostolic Church in Austria
- Syrian Orthodox Church in Austria
- Coptic Orthodox Church in Austria
Based on the 1874 Recognition Act, Imperial Law Gazette (RGBI.) No. 68/1874:
- Old Catholic Church of Austria, Imperial Law Gazette (RGBI.) No. 99/1877
- Methodist Church in Austria, Federal Law Gazette (BGBl.) No. 74/1951 as amended by Federal Law Gazette (BGBl.) No. 190/2004
- Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) in Austria, Federal Law Gazette (BGBl.) No. 229/1955
- New Apostolic Church in Austria, Federal Law Gazette (BGBl.) No. 524/1975
Religious communities by separate legal act:
- Jewish Religious Association: Jewish Act 1890, Imperial Law Gazette (RGBl.) No. 57/1890 as amended by Federal Law Gazette (BGBl.) No. 61/1984
- Islamic Religious Community in Austria: Islam Act of 1912, Imperial Law Gazette (RGBl.) No. 159/1912 as amended by Federal Law Gazette (BGBl.) No. 164/1988
Based on the 1874 Recognition Act, Imperial Law Gazette (RGBl.) No. 68/1874:
- Austrian Buddhist Religious Association, Federal Law Gazette (BGBl.) No. 72/1983
- Jehovah’s Witnesses in Austria, 139th decree by the Ministry of Education, Art and Cul-ture dated 7 May 2009, Federal Law Gazette I (BGBl.) No. 19/1998
According to the Eurobarometer Poll 2010:
- 44% of Austrian citizens responded that "they believe there is a God".
- 38% answered that "they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force".
- 12% answered that "they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force".
While northern and central Germany was the origin of the Reformation, Austria and Bavaria were the heart of the Counter-Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the absolute monarchy of Habsburg imposed a strict regime to restore Catholicism's power and influence among Austrians.
For a long time, the Habsburgs viewed themselves as the vanguard of Catholicism and all other confessions and religions were repressed. In 1781, in the era of Austrian enlightenment, Emperor Joseph II issued a Patent of Tolerance for Austria that allowed other confessions a limited freedom of worship. Religious freedom was declared a constitutional right in Cisleithania after the Austro-Hungarian Ausgleich in 1867 thus paying tribute to the fact that the monarchy was home of numerous religions beside Roman Catholicism such as Greek, Serbian, Romanian, Russian, and Bulgarian Orthodox Christians (Austria neighbored the Ottoman Empire for centuries), Calvinist, Lutheran Protestants and Jews. In 1912, after the annexation of Bosnia Herzegovina in 1908, Islam was officially recognized in Austria. Austria remains largely influenced by Catholicism. Catholicism was treated much like a state religion by Engelbert Dollfuss and Kurt Schuschnigg.
Although Catholic (and Protestant) leaders initially welcomed the Germans in 1938 during the Anschluss of Austria into Germany, Austrian Catholicism stopped its support of Nazism later on and many former religious public figures became involved with the resistance during the Third Reich. After the end of World War II in 1945, a stricter secularism was imposed in Austria, and religious influence on politics declined. The Austrian State guarantees the following rights to legally recognized churches and religious communities:
- Exclusivity (legal protection of name, exclusive pastoral responsibility for members)
- Status as a public-law corporation
- Autonomous organization and administration of "internal" affairs
- Protection of institutions, foundations and funds against secularization
- Establishment of denominational private schools
- Provision of religious instruction at public schools
- At present, 13 churches and religious communities are legally recognized in Austria. Legal recognition makes a church or religious community a legal entity under public law whose standing is that of a public-law corporation.
(Source: The Austrian Federal Chancellery, Religion in Austria 2011).