Religious freedom is guaranteed in the Austrian constitution. Since the 2001 Census for Austria, no official data has been collected on religious affiliation to maintain a stance. Nonetheless, Christianity, particularly Roman Catholicism, continues to be the predominant religion in Austria. In 2001, just under three-quarters (73.8%) of the population identified as Catholic. This figure dropped to 64.1% in 2011, signifying a decline of Catholicism in the country. Regarding other denominations of Christianity, 4.9% identifies as Protestant, and 2.2.% identifies as (2001). Of the remaining population, 4.2% identifies as Muslim, 0.8% identifies with some other religion, 12% identifies with no religion, and 2.0% did not specify their religious affiliation.
Catholicism in Austria
Christianity was introduced to Austria when the country was part of the Roman Empire. In fact, the presence of Christianity and Catholicism predates the establishment of Austria as a nation-state. Thus, Catholicism has played a significant role in shaping the country. The historical importance of the Catholic Church in Austrian history can be seen today in the presence of Catholic churches, shrines, cathedrals and monasteries throughout the country.
The events of World War II had a significant impact on the Catholic community. During the Anschluss (German annexation of Austria), the Catholic Church was subject to oppression and persecution. Many religious leaders and laypersons were persecuted and deported to concentration camps. Many were tortured, executed or driven to commit suicide. Since the end of World War II, the Catholic religion and the church's influence have been on a decline.
As a branch of Christianity, Catholicism presents the doctrine of God as the ‘Holy Trinity', consisting of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Like most Catholics, those Austrians who are active in their faith accept the authority of the priesthood and the Roman Catholic Church, which is led by the Pope. The younger generation tends to be less devout than the older generation. Indeed, it is common to find younger Austrians withdrawing their membership from the Catholic Church when they become adults due to the ‘Kirchensteuer’ (church contribution/tax), which takes out 1.1% of one’s total annual salary. Revelations of past mistreatment of children by Catholic religious leaders have also contributed to the decline of Catholicism in the country.
Today, some Austrians continue to practise Catholic traditions that mark seminal life events such as baptism, confirmation, marriage and funerals. Many will baptise their babies even if they do not regularly attend church services. However, most Austrians who identify as Catholic do not necessarily hold Catholic beliefs on central social and moral issues.
In the 20th and 21st century, Austria has seen a radical change in the religious composition of the country, largely due to historical events (such as WWII) and immigration. Two particular religious communities have seen significant changes during this time: Islam and Judaism.
The Muslim community in Austria has been present for over a century. After the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the population living in Austrian territory included a substantial number of Muslims. Austria was one of the first European countries to recognise Muslims as a religious community (officially referred to as the ‘Islamic Religious Community’) with the Anerkennungesetz (“Act of Recognition”) in 1912.
For the most part, Muslims are afforded the same religious rights as their Christian and Jewish counterparts, including religious instruction in public schools. In recent years, however, the Islamic community has seen changes in how they receive funds and particular practices. The Islamgesetz was introduced in 2015, making it illegal for foreign bodies to sponsor mosques or pay the salaries of imams. More recently in 2017, further laws were established by the current government to ban face veils such as the and in public settings such as courts and schools.
In the latter decades of the 20th century and early 21st century, the number of Muslims in Austria increased due to immigration, particularly from Turkey, former Yugoslavia and the Balkans. The present-day Islamic community is diverse, containing people from different backgrounds and groups. The largest Muslim community is the Turks, representing approximately 80% of the Muslim population.
Throughout Austria's history, followers of Judaism have faced an uncertain fate between persecution, toleration and cooperation. The presence of the Jewish community in Austria extends back to the beginning of the 10th century. Before WWII, Austria had a flourishing Jewish community. Approximately 200,000 people identified as Jewish and there were over 90 synagogues and temples throughout the country. More than 90% of Austrian Jews resided in the capital of Vienna.
The Anschluss brought massive changes to the Jewish community. The community was systematically targeted and annihilated. Approximately two-thirds of Austria’s Jews escaped to other countries. Some escapees found themselves again trapped in their asylum countries during WWII when Germany occupied Central and Western European states such as France, Hungary and Belgium. Only a few hundred Jews residing in Austria survived the persecution, expulsion and extermination of the following years.
At the end of the war, just under 2,000 Jews returned to Austria. The Jewish Religious Association of Vienna (reinstated after 1945) is the successor of the pre-war Jewish community in legal terms. However, many members are refugees from all over Europe in search of a new home. Today, the Jewish community has fewer than 10,000 members, the majority residing in Vienna. Only one of Vienna’s synagogues survived entirely. According to the World Jewish Congress (2018), Austria has recently offered sanctuary to many Soviet and Iranian Jews.