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Ecumenical News International
Daily News Service
21 February 2000


Foreign critics are making Haider famous, warns Austrian church
leader
ENI-00-0059

By Jonathan Luxmoore
Warsaw, 21 February (ENI)--Austrian church leaders have declared
that foreign criticism of their nation - where the far-right
Freedom Party (FPO) is now part of the government - shows a lack
of understanding and could be highly damaging.

Church leaders told ENI that efforts by foreign governments to
isolate Austria could be dangerous. The leader of Austria's
Lutherans said that anti-Austrian actions were making Jorg
Haider, controversial head of the FPO, Austria's most famous
citizen.

But the church leaders welcomed a pledge of support from the
Conference of European Church's (CEC), Europe's leading
ecumenical organisation. "This letter of solidarity shows we can
maintain normal relations with other churches and answers our
request for a critical dialogue," said Roman Catholic nun
Christine Gleixner, who is president of Austria's Ecumenical
Council. She was commenting on a letter sent on 14 February by
Keith Clements, CEC's general secretary, promising "deepest
solidarity" with Austria's churches in their stand against
"racism, xenophobia and anti-semitism".

Gleixner said: "Although we can't speak politically [about the
Freedom Party], we've expressed our position very clearly from
the beginning, drawing on the biblical foundations of our
Christian faith."

She said the Ecumenical Council's 14 member churches had shown
"full continuity" in all public statements since the FPO's
election success last October. The council planned to invite
political groups to an "open dialogue programme" next month, she
said. "It's important to recognise that all 14 churches are
following the same line and giving the same message," added
Gleixner. "At a time when the reaction of other countries is
difficult to accept, we're glad the churches have given a
different answer."

Austria is a member of the European Union, but other EU member
nations have been highly critical of the Freedom Party's new
place in the government. Israel and the United States have also
registered their displeasure over developments in Austria.
However, churches and related organisations, both inside Austria
and abroad, have been careful not to express direct criticism of
the democratically-elected government. Instead they have repeated
earlier warnings of the need for openness and tolerance - one of
the Freedom Party's main policies is directed against the arrival
of foreigners in Austria, which has become the preferred refuge
of many of those fleeing the troubled nations of Eastern Europe.

A spokesman for the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Vienna also
welcomed Dr Clements' letter, but warned that his church, which
claims 70 per cent of Austria's 7.8 million citizens as members,
could not "influence the formation of governments".

"It's vitally important that the churches aren't
cold-shouldering us, as governments are," said the spokesman,
Erich Leichtenberger. "We must prevent the isolation of Austria
and its people. "But we can only do this if our friends help
us."

The European Union froze bilateral links with Austria after the
4 February unveiling of a coalition government bringing together
the conservative Austrian People's Party (OVP) and the FPO, whose
leader, Jorg Haider, is notorious for his pro-Nazi and
anti-foreigner views.

The formation of the new government has prompted mass
demonstrations in Austria. On Saturday, 19 February, 150 000
people gathered in central Vienna to protest against the Freedom
Party. Smaller protests were also held across Europe - in Paris,
Grenoble, Lyon, Strasbourg, London, Oslo, Brussels, Prague and
Belgrade.

Fifty-year-old Haider, whose party holds half the new
government's 10 ministries, including defence, foreign affairs
and justice, campaigned for curbs on immigration, as well as
increased job creation and family support. But he himself is not
a member of the cabinet, and safeguards have been put in place to
prevent the resurgence of extreme racism in government policies.

As well as organising "prayers for the homeland" on 6 February,
the Ecumenical Council appealed to church bodies abroad on 11
February to oppose Austria's isolation, adding that the EU
sanctions had "magnified internal tensions" and polarised
attitudes.

The head of the Catholic Church in Austria, Cardinal Christoph
Schonborn, also criticised the EU, claiming that its
"condemnation of the whole country and its inhabitants" had hurt
"the many Austrians who are convinced Europeans".

"Every government, including the present one, has the right to
be judged on its actions," Cardinal Schonborn said on 4 February.
"Strident foreign reactions can be psychologically justified in
the light of 20th-century experiences. But they also overlook the
fact that for the past 50 years Austria has been a particularly
stable and democratic country, engaged in humanitarian assistance
and faithful to its constitution."

Keith Clements, in his letter of 14 February, said that in June
1997 Austria's churches had hosted the Second European Ecumenical
Assembly at Graz, which committed all denominations to defend
"victims of social injustice" and to champion the "dignity of
refugees and migrants".

He added that they could expect "deepest solidarity" from
fellow-Christians abroad in their attempts to "deepen responsible
public debate, challenge racism and xenophobia, defend the rights
of the disadvantaged and the stranger, prevent any erosion of
human rights and democratic values, and confront misleading
versions of past history".

"Opinions will differ on whether there was no alternative to the
Freedom Party's inclusion in the new government. It has indeed to
be recognised that the Freedom Party remains a minority group,
and that there are large and influential sections of Austrian
opinion strongly opposed to it," CEC's general secretary
continued. "But it is a matter for the most serious reflection
that in a modern European democracy and European Union
member-state, a political movement appealing to and fostering
attitudes so threatening to justice, peace and human rights has
been able to acquire so much public legitimacy."

Welcoming the letter, the presiding bishop of Austria's 340
000-member Evangelical Lutheran church, Herwit Sturm, said it
signalled that Christian communities were "seeing the situation
differently" from the critics abroad. He added that his own
church had exchanged advice with Lutheran and Reformed leaders in
France and Belgium on how to confront hostility to foreigners.

The bishop, who also co-chairs the Ecumenical Council, said the
FPO was "a democratic party which has come close to the edge, but
hasn't gone beyond it".

He added that it had had ministers for several years in six of
Austria's nine provincial governments, all which had behaved
"quite normally". The bishop said he believed the new premier,
Wolfgang Schussel of the People's Party, who is a committed
Christian, would ensure his government abided by its statement of
principles.

"The EU's harsh response is already having the opposite effect
of what was intended, by making Haider the best-known Austrian in
Europe", Bishop Sturm told ENI. "But some of the language in
Reverend Clements' letter is also exaggerated. The support [among
the electorate] for the FPO is a protest against the current
political situation, rather than a sign of hostility to
foreigners. The fact that so many people are demonstrating their
opposition to racism and anti-semitism is also a good
development."

The inauguration of the OVP-FPO government follows growing
tension over minorities in Austria, where foreigners make up a
tenth of the population, and 18 per cent of the 1.6 million
inhabitants of the capital, Vienna.

In November the chairman of Austria's Jewish Religious Council,
Ariel Muzicant, said on national television that anti-immigrant
campaigning by Haider had triggered 80 attacks on Jews and a
tenfold increase in threatening letters since the 3 October
election.

However, several foreign commentators have criticised the
Austrian churches' stance, including Le Monde newspaper in Paris,
whose religion writer compared the "timidity" of Roman Catholic
leaders to the silence of church officials in pre-war Nazi
Germany.

Erich Leichtenberger said Le Monde's comments had been a "clear
case of uninformed journalism". He added that Cardinal Schonborn
had issued numerous statements against racism and "anti-immigrant
propaganda".

"For over 50 years, Austria's bishops have followed the practice
of not interfering in party politics or the formation of
governments", the Vienna archdiocese spokesman said. "But the
church has repeatedly criticised FPO attitudes which conflict
with the Christian viewpoint. It's closely observing what the new
government is doing, and will be very outspoken if any human
rights violations occur."

He added that it was also working to calm the "angry reactions
against the rest of Europe" caused by EU sanctions. "The church
cannot determine people's political decisions anywhere in the
world - it can only try to educate their consciences."

"Racism has become a central issue in other European countries
too, and this is a challenge for all Christian churches. But
Austria has been governed for almost four decades by the same two
parties, who colonised public life and controlled all positions.
If Europeans have trouble understanding why so many people voted
for the so-called Freedom Party, they should remember this was
largely a protest rather than an expression of racist opinions."