div CESNURCenter for Studies on New Religions


"Discrimination on the Basis of Religion and Belief in Western Europe"

Testimony of Dr. Robert Hunt

before the

House International Relations Committee

U.S. House of Representatives

June 14, 2000


In this statement I represent only myself, and not the Methodistenkirche im Osterreich, the English Speaking United Methodist Church of Vienna, or the United Methodist Church.

According to a statement of the Austrian Information Service, dated January 20th, 1998, Religious freedom has been guaranteed by the Austrian constitution since 1867. Austria is also legally bound to recognize the right of freedom of religion through its participation in the OSCE, and its adherence to the European Convention of Human Rights. According to this statement the laws which regulate the legal status of religious belief communities (1874 and 1998), while making distinctions among them, in no way infringes on the rights of individuals or groups to choose their religion and practice it in public and private.

I would like to suggest that the right of religious freedom cannot, however, be separated from the issue of the legal status of religious communities, or official and un-official bias against particular religious communities and practices.

The Methodist Church in Austria came to Austria in 1870, and opened its first assembly in 1875. It could not obtain state recognition under the 1874 law which recognized other "official" religions. A chronology of Austrian Methodism published in 1921 details incidents of government action against Methodists taken despite the supposed guarantees of the 1867 constitution. 1877: Sunday School and open worship forbidden. 1880: Police forbid closed assemblies and prayers. 1886: Methodist pastor convicted for giving a child a Methodist tract. 1896: a new government order forbidding religious work. 1915: renewed order forbidding assemblies. And so on. Only in 1956 were the Methodists officially recognized by the Austrian state so that they could feel secure in their community life. Clearly constitutional guarantees meant little apart from official recognition as a religion or church.

Naturally the modern situation is somewhat different from that before the Second World War. Methodists now participate fully in ecumenical endeavors, own property, and cooperate with government agencies in several forms of social work. As a state recognized religious group we can offer our own form of the required religious instruction courses for school children and our pastors have a right to minister within state institutions such as prisons and hospitals.

It is my experience, however, that even Methodists do not live free from both official and unofficial bias. I first encountered this when seeking to book a hotel for our church retreats. On several occasions the managers of the hotels I visited told me that they were not interested in having a "sect" stay in their hotel. I was a able to book a hotel associated with the "Sport and Culture Association of the Vienna Traffic Service", but only after assuring them that our organization was state recognized. I cannot say whether they would have booked the hotel to a religious group which wasn't so recognized.

I encountered the same problem again when I tried to visit a member of my congregation who was interned in the "Schubhaft" for illegal immigrants. Despite showing a letter from the head of the Methodist community in Austria which certified that I represented a state recognized church, the police would not allow me to visit the prisoner privately. I was told that only members ofCaritas, a Catholic social service agency, could make such visits. Ultimately I was able to visit my member only by going with a group from Caritas. In order to visit a prisoner in the Central Prison in Vienna I had to both demonstrate that I came from a state recognized religion and obtain permission from the Roman Catholic chaplain first. One should not, however, generalize I have been given access to prisoners in the Sonnberg Prison, and there the social workers have been very helpful in allowing our church to carry out a ministry among them, albeit after I showed I came from a state recognized religion.

Another type of bias has been reported to me by my members. In one case a member of our church felt that the judge in a child-custody case, as well as a court appointed psychologist, showed prejudice against him by referring to hma as a "fundamentalist" and a member of a "sect". In another case a member was surprised to fmd that if, as a divorcee, he married a Roman Catholic religious instruction teacher she would lose her job. Although her education and salary are paid by the state, if she wishes to remain employed her right to marry (and thus his) hinges on a Roman Catholic marriage tribunal and presumably a priest's approval of her future spouse. Such a situation can hardly fail to be coercive - and puts the resources of the state at the disposal of a religious group purely for the enforcement of their own idiosyncratic beliefs.

The problem of bias is, unfortunately, rooted in Austrian law. At a symbolic level it is telling the Austrian courts still display prominently a crucifix - a symbol hardly calculated to inspire confidence by non-Catholics in an unbiased judicial system. The Austrian government distributes a document entitled "Sects: Knowledge Protects" which attempts to define religion, and then distinguishes between three types of religious groups. Some are able to obtain legal entity status, but are not recognized as churches or religious organizations. Others are given legal recognition as churches whose activities are in the public interest and thus receive public support. Finally there are those regarded as dangerous sects. This document clearly reflects a conscious, official, bias against some religious groups and implicitly regards the activities of even those with legal status as not being in the public interest. One cannot escape the effects of this bias by simply keeping one's religious identity secret. Every Austrian resident must declare their religion on their "Meldezettle", or required residency registration. And a copy of this is required for every activity from signing a lease to opening a bank account to purchasing a mobile phone. And as I have indicated, bias based on religion affects relationships in both the public and private sphere.

It is possible to look at the anecdotal evidence I have given as simply highlighting the negative aspects of a generally positive situation. Yet ultimately freedom of religion depends not just on assurances that individuals and groups can assemble and worship freely. It hinges also on their being given equal protection from bias (particularly in the public sector). And it depends on making a distinction between the enforcement of laws which govern society and the enforcement of the religious judgments of any particular religious group. There is long historical precedent for believing that this can only happen when religion is thoroughly "dis-established" and the work of religious institutions supported by the government only in so far as they pursue their work for the benefit of individuals and society without bias and without promoting their particular sectarian goals.

In closing let me say that I am by no means unhappy to live and minister in Austria. As an American and a Methodist the vast majority of my relationships with Austrian society are happy and positive. If I represented only my personal experience I would have little enough about which to speak. Yet I think there is no room for apathy about this issue. No country is so far along in its social evolution that it cannot, given the right circumstances, revert to religious bigotry and intolerance. Our commitment to freedom requires of us continual and disciplined selfexamination, and an honest appraisal of the conduct of those we would call friends.

CESNUR reproduces or quotes documents from the media and different sources on a number of religious issues. Unless otherwise indicated, the opinions expressed are those of the document's author(s), not of CESNUR or its directors

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