Freedom of Religion and Religious Tolerance[1]

Annual Report  2006


The Austrian constitution provides for freedom of religion and the government generally respects this right in practice. The relations between the state and religions are mainly governed by the Law on Recognition of Churches and religious Communities (1874) recognized by the state, the Law on the Status of Religious Confessional Communities (1998) and the Law on Associations (2002.)


Before 1998, Austria made a distinction between two categories of religions: legally recognized religious communities and non-recognized religious communities (associations). This system flouted the fundamental principle of equal opportunities for religious communities and citizens. After many years of legal battles, Jehovah’s Witnesses managed to qualify for state recognition,[2] but in 1998, Austria hastily revised its legislation and thereby barred their access to the higher category.


The 1998 law aggravated the discriminatory character of the pre-existing legislation by creating three categories of religions: legally recognized religious societies (gesetzlich anerkannte Religionsgesellschaft), confessional communities (Bekenntnisgemeinschaft) and associations (Verein). The law also imposed new criteria on religious groups to achieve the highest status: a 20-year period of existence (at least 10 of which must have been as group organized as a religious confessional community) and membership of one-thousandth of the country’s population (approximately 16,000 people), a requirement that effectively excludes all new applicants – except Jehovah’s Witnesses - from the access to the first category. The new and stricter obligations did, however, not affect 9 of the 13 state-recognized religious societies previously registered in the upper category with far less than 16,000 members. In addition, the state recognized the Coptic Orthodox Church with only 1,633 members in 2003, outside the realm of the new regulation normally imposed to new candidates.[3]


In 2005, there were 13 legally recognized religious societies. Four of them had more than 16,000 members.[4] The other nine had a membership ranging from less than 15,000 to about 1,300.[5] Ten religious groups were admitted in the category of confessional communities [6] on the basis of the new requirements introduced by the 1998 law.[7]


Confessional communities and other religious groups registered as mere associations enjoyed fewer rights than legally recognized religious societies, thereby impairing their member’s ability to fully enjoy their individual and collective rights. As “associations” they were: denied the right to engage in a number of public or quasi-public activities; not eligible to receive state subsidies for the wages and education of their clergy, and for their private schools; denied fiscal advantages; not permitted to teach religion at public schools; subject to a numerical quota for the issue of visas for foreign religious workers to act as ministers, missionaries or teachers; in many cases stigmatized as harmful sects/cults.


A number of non-recognized religious groups were considered by official bodies as sects, which society should be warned and protected against. The operation of a Documentation and Information Center on Sects (established under the under 1998 law) was controversial and seen as a measure to reinforce the climate of societal discrimination and intolerance against minority religions. Also controversial was the establishment and operation of a Federal Office of Sect Issues and other similar offices at the state level with funding from public funds. The financing by the Ministry for Social Security and Generations and the City of Vienna of the Society against Sect and Cult Dangers (GSK) has also been questioned. In addition, several provinces had offices that provided information on “sects” and “cults.” Members of stigmatized confessional communities and other religious associations were reported to be discriminated against at school, by courts, etc. because they were labeled as “sect” members.[8] Positively, the website of the Family Office of the Government of Lower Austria no longer included a presentation that negatively characterized many religious groups.


The NGO Forum against Anti-Semitism reported more than a hundred anti-Semitic incidents in 2005, such as physical attacks (four cases), name-calling, graffiti/defacement, threatening letters and phone calls, anti-Semitic internet postings, and property damage.[9]


Muslims complained about incidents of every-day discrimination and verbal harassment. Positively, the Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture policy document of June 2004 concerning the wearing of the headscarf remained in force: it reminded all schools under its jurisdiction that the wearing of the headscarf was protected by the right to freedom of religion under the Constitution and the ECHR, and stated that any attempt to ban it was unlawful.


[1] Provided by Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF, IHF cooperating organization).

[2] In 1997, Jehovah’s Witnesses were denied recognition as a religious society under the 1874 Law. They filed a complaint with the European Court for Human Rights in 1998, arguing that the group had not yet been granted full status as a religious entity in the country under the law, despite a two-decade struggle. The case was still pending at the end of 2005.

[3] Human Rights Without Frontiers, Int., Religionsfreiheit, Intolerany und Diskriminierung in der Europaeschen Union (Oesterreich 2003-2004), p. 32, 2004, at

[4] The Roman Catholic Church, the Islamic Religious Community, the Lutheran and Presbyterian Churches (Evangelical Church, Augsburger and Helvetic Confessions) the Eastern Orthodox Churches (Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian and Bulgarian).

[5] The Old Catholic Church, the Austrian Buddhist Religious Association, the Jewish Religious Association, the New Apostolic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Methodist Church.

[6] Groups must have at least 300 members to qualify for the status of confessional communities. According to the Ministry of Education and Culture, as of July 2005, thirteen movements had introduced an application: 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 application of Sahaja Yoga was rejected in 1998.

[7] Jehovah’s Witnesses (23,206 members), the Federation of Free Christian and Pentecostal Congregations (7,186 members) and, with a smaller membership, the Federation of Evangelical Congregations, the Church of the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Hindu Religious Society, the Federation of Baptist Congregations, the Christian Movement for Religious Revival, the Baha’i Religious Community, the Mennonite Free Church and the Pentecostal Community of God.

[8] See, for example, child custody in the case Hoffman v. Austria at the European Court of Human Rights.

[9] Forum gegen Antisemitismus, at