Management of religious diversity in state institutions in Austria

Wolfram Reiss and Elisa Troyer

How wonderful just to be varied And yet to be trustful not scared That an ally and friend Is around every bend Godfrey Its time all suspicions are buried D’Lima


Increasing diversity in the religious and cultural sphere is a well-established fact of today’s societies (Zissler, 2017). In Austria, this actuality is also omnipresent. Projections of religious plurality display a growth in religious minorities, particularly relating to Muslim and Orthodox populations as well as a trend towards secularisation, shown by the fact that the numbers of those registering with ‘no affiliation’ amount to the second largest group, or 17% in Austria but 30% in Vienna, after Catholics represented by 64% in Austria and 35% in Vienna (Goujon, Jurasszovich, & Potancokova, 2017). However, this diversity is much more complex than displayed through statistics. This is also true for the heterogeneity within these communities, as there are quite different traditions with various languages, cultures, practices and beliefs behind the categories Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Muslims and Other.

General characteristics of state institutions

In state institutions, such as prisons, hospitals and military, persons must spend a considerable amount of time or even their whole life constrained and with limited or no contact to the wider community. As Goffman (1973) highlights, these “total institutions” organise daily activities in a unified way and keep to a strict dress code and schedule. These predetermined routines cannot, or only to a minimal amount, be changed individually. In these settings, people lose the traits of civil identity, their autonomy of decision as well as the right to privacy. Consequently, state institutions are contentious spaces of internal conflict and thus need to be managed with care.

State institutions as microcosms

The landscape of state institutions is shaped by a juxtaposition of external factors of religious diversity, as well as internal dynamics of total institutions. As such, these settings reflect societal microcosms in which social density is much higher, compared to society in general, due to cohabitation in confined spaces. Therefore, a much more pressing necessity arises in the management of religious diversity. Public institutions are thus faced with various practical challenges in accommodating this pluralistic setting (Mattes, Mourao Permoser, & Stoeckl, 2016), such as religious care, the accommodation of special dietary requirements or the establishment of new sacred spaces (Reiss, 2015). State institutions also hold a special status with view to religion and spirituality in general, as they have, to some extent, been shielded from effects of secularisation, in a way that religious care and activities are continuously being officially practised (Beckford, 2010).

Research gap and outlook

Much of the published research on religious or spiritual care in public institutions has been limited to the study of single aspects in one institution. It has rarely been studied how these institutions respond to their growing religious diversity (Cadge, Griera, Lucken, & Michalowski, 2017). Therefore, the following chapter examines the legal and structural basis of chaplaincy services of various religious communities in state institutions of Austria and sheds light on issues that arise in this setting.

Legal framework Individual and collective rights

In Austria, the management of religious diversity in state institutions is based on two complementary basic rights of religious freedom. On the one hand, this refers to the individual right of persons to practise religion and, on the other, to the collective right of recognised religious communities to offer religious care in this setting. The former is irrespective of state recognition of religious communities so that every individual has the right to religious care and religious practices. Religious or spiritual care in state institutions is subsumed not only under the principle of status negativus but also under status positivus, meaning the state is also subjected to an action to guarantee these rights (Potz, 2009). Therefore, a cooperation between state and religious communities is necessary.

Management of religious diversity in state institutions in Austria 223 Formal status of religious communities

On a legal level, three different groups of religious communities can be distinguished in Austria (Potz & Schinkele, 2016). These are:

  • 1 Religious communities with legal entity under private law on the basis of the general act on associations. Religious communities can become private associations, like sports clubs. These can either refer to nonprofit associations, which need at least two members and non-profit intentions, but are not considered religious by the state, or to an association with partly religious functions (i.e., the Sikh community).
  • 2 State-registered religious communities with legal entity under private law. State-registered communities gain juridical personality under the regulations documented in the Act on the Legal Status of Religious Denominational Communities (BekGG, 1998). Requirements for state registration are a minimum of 300 followers living in Austria, who are not registered with any other religious community. They are legally required to disclose their statutes, including the name of the community, which must follow a doctrinal ethos. The name and doctrine are not allowed to overlap with any other religious community. These conditions refer to nine communities, for example, the Baha’i Religion, the Church of Seventh-Day Adventists or the Old- Alevi Religious Community are organised this way (Bundeskanzler- amt, 2020a).
  • 3 Legally recognised churches and religious societies with public-law status. To gain legal recognition by the state, the communities need to provide evidence of a majority of physical persons, a religious doctrine, church service and a constitution, the latter of which cannot contain illegal or morally offensive statutes. It also has to prove its continuous existence for the past 20 years and a minimum of ten years as religious denominational community attaining legal personality. Members of the community must amount to at least two out of 1,000 of the Austrian population, measured by the latest census (currently 17,675 persons, Statistik Austria, 2018). The community has to be affirmative towards the state and society and there should not be any unlawful proceedings with recognised churches or other religious communities. Revenue and finances of the community can only be spent for religious or charitable means (Potz &c Schinkele, 2007).

In Austria, 16 religious communities are recognised under public law, for instance, the Islamic Community and Free Churches (Bundeskanzleramt, 2020b). As such, they have the right to teach religious education at schools according to their own curriculum, and to care for their followers in state institutions (Potz & Schinkele, 2016).

Six religious communities also maintain special laws with the state, which document detailed provisions of their affiliation (Potz & Schinkele, 2016)

  • 1 The Concordat of 1933 between the Holy See and the Austrian Republic.
  • 2 The Federal Act of 1961 on the external legal relationship of the Protestant Church in Austria.
  • 3 The Federal Act of 1967 (2011) on the external legal relationship of the Greek-Oriental Church in Austria.
  • 4 The Federal Act of 2003 on the external legal relationships of the Oriental-Orthodox Churches in Austria.
  • 5 The Federal Act of 1890 (2012) on the external legal relationship of the Israelite Religious Society.
  • 6 The Federal Act on the external legal relationships of Islamic Religious Societies of 1912 (2015).

A content synopsis of the above laws illustrates how these recognised communities retain the authority to send chaplains into state institutions, the right not to witness in courts on the basis of the pledge of security as well as the prerogative for members of the Jewish and Muslim religious community for dietary considerations. Some contentious points can be raised with these legal texts. First, non-Christian religious communities do not possess statutes concerning the pledge of secrecy, making the right not to bear witness obsolete for them. Second, the text specifies these laws for clergymen, which again, do not exist in many of these religious communities. Third, many other religious communities do not possess special contracts with the state. These three issues point to inequalities in treatment among religious communities (Reiss, 2017).

Institutional challenges


The changing social realities of Austrian society are only slowly taken into consideration within the Armed Forces. This can be inferred from the fact that there are no special regulations for religious minorities concurrent with the demographic development, as they are only issued when conflicts arise. The very first provisions of religious and spiritual care were developed for the Sikhs, a religious group which constitutes a very small minority in Austria (about 7,000), whereas no such statutes exist for Orthodox Christians (about 775,000). Similarly, no provisions were established for Muslims (about 700,000) until 2015, who by that time, already constituted a much larger religious demographic in Austria than the Protestants (about 292,000) (estimated numbers according to Mohr, 2020). At the same time, current efforts to include religious minorities within the Armed Forces should not be undervalued. It needs to be kept in mind that, historically, the army has continuously retained a pioneer position in the social integration of minorities, illustrated by the admittance of Protestants and Jews into the Austro-Hungarian Army (Reiss, 2018).

The following paragraphs will outline various other challenges that religious diversity poses to the Armed Forces.

Categorisation of recruits

As soon as recruits enter the army, they are recorded according to their piousness into different categories: (1) mere members, (2) pious members or (3) particularly pious members (the last category was suspended in 2018). The observation that, in general, people hold various degrees of piousness might be correct, however, a record of such divisions by the state is problematic as certain religious rights can be withheld depending on such classifications. Moreover, they reveal an unequal treatment of various religious communities. For instance, while soldiers of the Protestant Churches, the Old Catholic Church and the Methodist Church are always classified as mere members of their religious communities, Sikhs can only be recorded as pious, and the classification of Jews and Muslims has to be confirmed in written form by an official public representative (Reiss, 2018). In this case, “classifications involve the danger that presuppositions and prejudices are reinforced and thus facilitate the discrimination of persons concerned” (Krainz, 2012, p. 211).

Leave of absence

The regulations concerning leave of absences due to prayers or religious holidays hold an inherent bias in favour of adherents to the Christian Catholic faith. This is as Sundays are considered off days for all recruits, irrespective of their religious affiliation. These hours are already taken into consideration in the scheduling of working hours. This does not apply to recruits of other religious communities, as leave of absence for religious feasts of minorities must be granted in addition to the Catholic holidays and recruits need to compensate their own religious holidays (Trauner, 2009b). Exempt from this rule had been Good Friday and Yom Kippur, but these non-Catholic religious holidays were cancelled by the government in 2019 based on a court decision of the European Court. Also, in the “new guidelines for the treatment of pious members” there are special regulations for ‘pious’ Muslims, Jews, Alevites and Sikhs but not for Orthodox Christians (Richtlinien, 2018).


The compliance with religious dietary rules is another precarious issue. Usually, it is considered a standard for military kitchens to provide foods that do not contain pork, lard or alcohol. Nevertheless, the prepared meals do not adhere to halal-butchering requirements (Trauner, 2009a) so that pious Muslims cannot consume this type of meat. A further problem arises regarding the observance of Jewish dietary laws. Kashrut laws are far more complex than halal rules, that is, an absolute separation of kitchenware in the food preparing process must be ensured. There is a possibility of selfcatering or an organised catering for kosher food in cooperation with the Israelite community, while a claim for halal food is excluded for Muslim recruits. Muslims who are not categorised by their community as ‘pious Muslims’ have no claim for food without pork (Richtlinien, 2018).

Religious apparel

In most cases, specific religious clothing attire is catered for. Pious Jews are permitted to wear the kippah in addition to the military uniform and Sikhs have been given permission not to cut their facial and head hair, as well as to wear a turban instead of the ordinary military headgear (Bundesminis- terium fur Landesvereteidigung, 2006). Also, a regulation was introduced that allowed ‘particularly pious’ Muslims to have a beard (Trauner, 2009a, 2009b).

However, there have been several problems with these regulations. For example, there are no regulations for Muslim female soldiers wanting to wear a hijab. Similarly, there are concerns over mixed fabrics of military uniforms for Jewish recruits (Schmidl, 2014).

Places and extent of military chaplaincy

The Catholic Military Chaplaincy and a Catholic chapel are represented with full-time chaplains in the premises at almost every larger garrison. Even though the number of Protestant soldiers is significantly lower, fulltime Protestant chaplains are also found at most area commands. Chaplains of both religious communities also hold ranks within the army. Both of these chaplaincy services have additional chaplains working on a voluntary basis (Reiss, 2018).

The Orthodox chaplaincy should technically have been granted the same rights as the Protestant Church according to the 1967 Orthodox Law. This means that the federal government is obligated to ensure the presence of Orthodox chaplaincy in military institutions as well as to sufficiently provide for personnel and material expenses. However, these regulations have never been implemented. Only as recently as 2011 was Orthodox military chaplaincy established; yet, it had to comply with an entirely different framework of conditions to those that were initially conceived, that is, no office or communication equipment was provided (Trauner, 2012).

The implementation of Islamic military chaplaincy had been advocated for decades before it was finally established in 2015 (Trauner, 2012). The amended Law on Islam in 2015 (Bundesgesetz iiber die, 2015) paved the way for an Islamic and Islamic Alevite military chaplaincy. The law guaranteed Islamic communities a right to implement an organised chaplaincy service in hospitals, prisons and the army along similar principles to those of Christian communities. In 2017, an agreement with the Israelite community was also signed to introduce a first Jewish Military chaplain (Der Standard, 2017). Other religious communities, such as free-church movements neither possess sacred rooms nor regulations concerning religious care (Reiss, 2018).


Government support for military chaplaincy varies considerably, dependent on religious denomination (Darabos, 2012). The Roman Catholic military chaplaincy receives most funding, namely an annual total of €2,820,000 for personnel costs and €80,000 for operating expenses. Only about one-third of this sum is received by the Protestant military chaplaincy with €1,080,000 for personnel costs and €18,000 for operating expenses. Other religious communities are entitled to considerably less funding: The Orthodox Church in Austria retains an annual sum of €4,100 (Trauner, 2012). A similar arrangement was made with the Islamic Community. These conditions represent a substantial bias, affecting not only the organisational structures of chaplaincies but also their means of professionalisation, affecting working hours of chaplains and resources. (Reiss, 2018).


Similar conditions are found in prisons in Austria, which an interdisciplinary project, including the Correctional Academy, the Protestant and Catholic prison chaplaincy and the Protestant Academy in Vienna (2015, cited in Reiss, 2020), has shown. During this project, data on the present situation of religious care in Austrian prisons were collected and different international chaplaincy approaches to religious and spiritual care were evaluated with view to their applicability in the Austrian context. The following list shows a collection of problematic issues.

Categorisation of inmates

Similar to the military setting, inmates are also categorised according to an arbitrary categorisation system. This can be seen by the fact that not all recognised or state-registered communities, such as the legally recognised Armenian Apostolic Church, are found within their system. Other groups are also misleadingly catalogued, that is, there is a distinction of either ‘Muslim’, ‘Sunnite’ or ‘Shiite’ (Reiss, 2020).

228 Wolfram Reiss and Elisa Troyer Organisation and working conditions

Again, Catholic chaplaincies are permanently established within prisons and usually also retain offices and chapels in all 27 prisons in Austria. The Protestant church holds only one full-time and one 70% of a full-time position. The rest of the work is serviced by volunteers. At present, Protestant chaplaincy services can be delivered in 19 of the 27 penal institutions. The church can only assign clerics who have completed a one-day introductory course within a penal institution (Gefangnisseelsorge Richtlinien, 2011). One Protestant chapel and three offices exist (information of Protestant prison chaplain Markus Fellinger, 2018). The Islamic religious community holds one full-time chaplain since 2017. The majority of religious care is serviced by volunteers. Currently, there are three Muslim prayer rooms available in prisons across Austria. One Viennese prison occupies a prayer room with a Torah shrine, nevertheless it is rarely used, as at least ten Jews must be present for a service to take place (Reiss, 2020). All other denominational communities neither possess their own sacred spaces nor do they have part- or full-time chaplains. Mostly, volunteers come to see prisoners as normal visitors of inmates, which include a full-body search, measures of audiovisual monitoring as well as separation by a safety glass.


The state currently funds six-and-a-half positions for Catholic chaplains (estimated €500,000), whereas all other positions and material costs are paid for by the church. The Protestant Church receives a fixed amount of €30,000 per year. All other expenses are borne by internal funds. Similar conditions apply to Islamic prison funds (annual payment of €20,320). One full-time position is paid for by the Islamic religious community. All other religious communities do not receive any support from the state (Reiss, 2020).


In many prisons, catering to religious dietary laws is not guaranteed, as food can be served without pork, nevertheless, it might still contain gelatine or lard. This predicament causes obstacles for Muslim or Jewish prisoners, as such consumption is strictly forbidden. Therefore, the Jewish community can organise kosher food deliveries (Reiss, 2016). Yet, this is not the case for the Islamic Religious Community. However, during Ramadan, Muslim prisoners are permitted to heat their dinners after sunset (Reiss, 2010, 2020).


A recent multi-religious study of chaplaincy in Austrian hospitals aimed to illustrate the underlying concepts and cooperative structures of chaplaincy among minor and major religious denominations. A mixed method approach was applied, comprising a questionnaire study of 32 hospital chaplains and a qualitative analysis of interviews with 12 hospital chaplains. Findings revealed several challenges and gave insight into the practise of hospital chaplaincy from ten religious organisations: Catholic, Protestant, Greek-Orthodox, Buddhist, Baptist, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jewish, Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists and Islam, as summarised in the following sections (Trover, 2020).

Framework conditions

The study reported that most of the time legal regulations concerning religion within Austrian state hospitals were observed. Nevertheless, some chief concerns were identified where some provisions were restricted or even completely disregarded. In one case, a chaplain from a minority denomination was denied entrance to some hospitals. Sometimes, the ability of chaplains to participate in official ceremonies was also limited (Troyer, 2020). Another pressing issue arose due to the new European General Data Protection Regulation (2018), which led to constraint on hospital chaplaincy service delivery by minority religious communities. Typically, chaplains received lists of patients pertaining to their respective faith communities. However, the new legislature resulted in hospitals ceasing to record patients’ religious affiliation during admittance. Accordingly, they were unable to forward this information on to the chaplains so that minor religious communities were impeded from meeting the spiritual needs of their adherents (Synodenbiiro Evangelische Kirche Osterreich, 2019).

Sacred spaces

Another concern in dealing with religious plurality in public institutions is the allocation of sacred spaces. In Austrian hospitals, sacred spaces are not neutral places but are subjected to the question of ownership. By name and architecture, they usually signify their affiliation with a certain religious group. Trover’s study (2020) found that these places in hospitals are predominantly retained by the more traditional religious groups, rather than reflecting current societal demographics. This is illustrated by the preeminence of premises belonging to the Catholics. Correspondingly, Muslims, now pertain the second highest level of premises in Austrian hospitals, and rooms for practices of Orthodox patients are scarce. The research also exhibited that, most full-time hospital chaplains were from the Catholic faith and that this had a significant influence on the way in which religion and religious practise are organised in hospitals.

Educational standards

Results show great disparity among religious communities with regards to the educational qualifications of chaplains. In Austria, there are four educational courses that train those entering the profession of chaplaincy. Two are concerned with generalised training of chaplains regardless of the context in which they will serve (Catholic/Protestant and Free churches). One course specifically applies to hospital chaplaincy (Muslim) and one specialises on life situations (Buddhist). Each course exhibits different requirements, contents duration and duties. The extent of variation in educational standards, especially across minor and major denominations varies considerably (Troyer, 2020).


In Austria, each religious community usually caters to patients of their own faith. An exception to this type of practise is evident in hospital chaplaincy delivered by Catholic chaplains, who are tasked by their religious community with visiting all patients regardless of religious affiliation.

Another issue concerns the working hours and funding for chaplaincy services. Whereas Catholic and full-time Protestant chaplains are paid by their respective churches, chaplains from minority religious communities are employed on a voluntary basis and are thus unpaid (Troyer, 2020). Only the Catholic Church in Austria receives state funding for chaplaincy services as in special cases, individual arrangements have been reached with Austrian provinces, that is, in Vienna, the archepiscopal chair has an ongoing contract with state hospitals to allocate Catholic chaplains office space with resources for other duties (Potz, 2009).

A striking result is also shown by the major differences in the understanding of chaplaincy practise across religious denominations. Similarly, duties of chaplains varied greatly and can refer, among others, to administrative, networking or educational tasks; ensuring religious needs, holding church services, interdisciplinary or interreligious meetings (Troyer, 2020).


Within hospital chaplaincy practises, interreligious contacts occur in a variety of ways such as through formal meetings, religious services, educational lectures, committees or swapping resources. A formal cooperation of religious communities only exists in Tyrol, through an oecumenical collaboration. Further oecumenical contracts are still being developed in Vienna and Lower Austria. Other than that, only unofficial guidelines, papers or practical projects, that is, the interreligious mile at the biggest public hospital in Vienna (AKH), are in existence. Nevertheless, these contacts are “irregular, person-dependent and non-fixated structural basis” (Troyer, 2020, p. 100). They are not institutionalised, nor do they possess a formal structure. For smaller religious denominations, interreligious contacts are often related to practical issues, such as receiving information on patients through chaplains of other religious communities. Compared to interfaith contacts, interdisciplinary connections within the hospital occurred with much higher frequency. These contacts encompass either established meetings or punctual encounters with hospital staff pertaining to various sectors, that is, doctors, psychologists or therapists (Troyer, 2020).


The management of religious diversity in state institutions is a precarious matter, as it involves a complex cooperation between major stakeholders - the state and religious communities. In Austria, the state’s involvement in this area has been illustrated to be very selective. Even though in recent years more religious communities have been recognised on the legal level, the state has continuously privileged certain religious communities - mostly those who have been long established. Catholic and partly Protestant chaplaincies receive major benefits, such as not having to compensate for religious holidays in the military or having permanently established bases and offices in all three institutions. The allocation of sacred spaces also remains unequal as largely only Catholic chapels exist, and many other religious communities receive few or no premises. An additional contention occurs in the management of religious needs. Even though efforts are being made by the state in trying to comply with dietary laws of Jews and Muslims as well as establishing regulations on religious clothing - a halal or kosher diet cannot be guaranteed in most institutions. Furthermore, provisions on religious clothing do not incorporate all necessary considerations.

In general, it becomes evident that reactions by the state show a lack of regard for the changing demographics of religious communities. This is illustrated by the fact that there is still a large pre-eminence of Catholic chaplaincies in Austrian state institutions, even though the numbers of Catholics have steadily decreased in recent years. An opposite view is posed by the Orthodox Church, whose numbers have continuously risen and are now about equal in numeric strength to the Protestant population, nevertheless its chaplaincy services is scarce in state institutions (Goujon, 2015).

There is a great disparity in the financing of chaplaincies across state institutions in Austria. A contentious issue is displayed by the profoundly disparate working conditions of chaplains, since the Catholic Church can afford to pay for their full-time chaplains, yet also receives most funding from the state. Many smaller denominational communities do not have the monetary budget to finance full-time positions and in most cases, they do not receive state support, so that chaplains are usually bound by the voluntary status. This means that, due to time constraints, these chaplains have less access to patients, inmates or recruits and can provide fewer religious activities in institutions. Likewise, these conditions have implications for the educational standards of chaplains as Catholic as well as Protestant and in some cases Muslim communities have more means, resources and time to educate their chaplains. A further concern is the response of religious communities to the ever-growing secularisation. Analysis reveals that chaplaincy is still rooted in the differentiated practises of individual religious communities. This is shown by the fact that education as well as financing are provided by each of the denominations in Austria.

The results of the paper indicate that, currently, in Austria, a presence of a multi-faith chaplaincy is not to be found. These findings raise serious questions about the future development and conceptions of religious or spiritual care in Austria and imply various reconsiderations for future practise.

Foremost, a re-evaluation of legal and institutional provisions considering the changing religious landscape is crucial towards conceptualising more equal forms of chaplaincy. This would include a comprehensive revision of categorisations and demographic statistics of religious affiliations within state institutions.

A further step will involve a review of the financial reimbursements of chaplaincy services in state institutions, which are profoundly unequal in nature at present. This current financial situation is not sustainable and future developments, especially concerning the ever-growing religious diversification, will make this issue even more pressing. This is due to evidence that even the more established, traditional churches will most likely not be able to pay for full-time chaplains anymore. New ways of funding could be considered, such as conceptual innovations in the Netherlands, whereby state institutions employ and pay for religious or spiritual care services (European Network of Health Care Chaplaincy, 2013). It could also see establishment of humanist chaplains, caring for all within an institution regardless of religious affiliation. This would create value by including those with no religious affiliation, who are not usually catered for.

The next concern emanates from the different understandings and standards of chaplaincy practise across religious groups in Austria, which are also closely connected to the working and financial conditions of the various communities. In the future, joint educational courses and multi-faith projects in institutions could be a possibility. This approach may standardise religious and spiritual care practises, and practically ensure that the religious and spiritual needs of inmates, patients and conscripts are adequately catered for.

Lastly, practical disparities related to spaces for religious or spiritual care in state institutions along with provisions for dietary rules, should be thoroughly discussed. Future considerations, such as establishing multi-faith prayer rooms or joint office structures could help to alleviate the present juxtaposition of care possibilities. As far as dietary rules are concerned, trans-institutional regulations could make the compliance with religious needs more feasible, for instance, by organising catering not only for single institutions but by arranging them simultaneously for several state institutions in one region.


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Richtlinien fur den Dienst aller in der Gefangnisseelsorge tatigen Personen sovvie fur die Erstellung deren Amtsauftrage. (2011). Retrieved from document/39182.

Richtlinien fiir die Behandlung strengglaubig Angehoriger anerkannter Kirchen und Religionsgesellschaften. Erlass vom. (2018, August 31). GZ S93109/4-MFW/2018 in: Verlautbarungsblatt des Bundesministeriums fiir Landesverteidigung, September 5, 2018.

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