The Austrian Church has hit out at the government over its proposal to ban the hijab for girls and over its “faith tests” for Christian-convert refugees.

Driving the news

It was a short honeymoon with the Church for the newly sworn-in Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, in coalition now with the Green Party.

Kurz returned January 7 to the position of head of government he held for eighteen months until May 2019, when he lost the confidence of the Parliament over the “Ibiza-gate” corruption scandal.

Though Kurz met January 28 with Archbishop of Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn for a warm exchange of greetings – in which Schönborn expressed his support for the new government, and especially for the planned ÖVP-Green environmental and social policies – the tensions between the Austrian Church and State were already bubbling under the surface.

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One of the motives for the clash between Kurz and the Austrian Church is the new government’s pledge to extend the ban on hijabs for girls under 14, an age limit that’s set up to go up from the current ban for girls under 10.

According to Cardinal Schönborn, in pluralist Austria it should be possible “to have different religious signs in public”.

“Our focus is not so much on forbidding, but on educating”, said Schönborn, also chairman of the Austrian Bishops’ Conference, in reference to the belief in hijab use being associated with a risk of radicalisation.

The hijab debate is really about the visibility of all religious signs, Schönborn continued, warning that “if we start to exclude such religious signs from public space, we would have to change our landscape fundamentally”, with consequences for crosses on churches, the wearing of crucifixes, and the like.

Bishop of Innsbruck Hermann Glettler also weighed into the hijab debate, putting the Kurz government on notice that “I do not believe that the headscarf ban in schools is a necessary and appropriate measure to ensure the best possible development and integration of children”.

Like Schönborn, Glettler also warned against descending into a war on all religious symbols, especially since, in the opinion of the Innsbruck bishop, the Islamic veil isn’t one at all.

Rather, the headscarf is a “cultural” symbol now the subject of a “tendentious interpretation as a symbol of a politicised Islam”, Glettler decried, accusing Chancellor Kurz and his ministers of a “suspect… paternalism” with their moves to further restrict the use of the veil on the part of children.

“Do we really want to pillorise a religion? I don’t like that at school or anywhere else”, Glettler added, recalling that “for many Muslim women, emancipation and headscarf are not a contradiction but an expression of cultural identity”, and that “gender equality… is a fundamental right”.

Why it matters

The hijab debate aside, another motive for tension between the Austrian Church and government are the “faith tests” used to determine the outcome of petitions for asylum in the case of migrants and refugees who have converted to Christianity in the course of their time in Austria.

Currently, it is left up to immigration officials – and not the Churches – to determine, by means of the faith tests, whether a conversion is genuine or just a means to stay in the country.

That’s a policy Schönborn said he doesn’t agree with.

The judgment on the faith or otherwise of an asylum seeker convert should be in the hands of his or her respective religious community, the cardinal explained.

He cited as justification for his claim the intensive year-long preparations for adult baptism in the Catholic Church by which Church officials come to know deeply the candidates for the rite of Christian initiation.

“A deportation to a Muslim country can be life-threatening for a person who has converted to Christianity”, Cardinal Schönborn also warned.

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Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.