A stroke of a minister’s pen on Thursday was all it took for Austria’s favorite sect cult to lose its official sect cult status. With the signature of the relevant decree and its publication in the Federal Law Gazette today, the Jehovas Witnesses are now an officially recognized “Religionsgesellschaft” with all the rights and privileges that status entails.
The official recognition has been long in coming–efforts began in 1978–and probably took a couple of judgments by the European Court of Human Rights to encourage the bureacracy to stop dithering and extend recognition to a religious society that had met the statutory requirements.
The wait had been prolonged in 1997 by the passage of the Religious Communities Act, which created a new category of “religious communities” (a private-law entity as opposed to the “religious societies,” a public-law entity, regulated by the 1874 Recognition Act), granting them legal personality but withholding other privileges and imposing a ten-year waiting period and minimum membership requirements (at least 0.002% of Austria’s population of 8 million or 16,000 based on census data rather than church records) on any religious community that would apply for religious society status.
The 23,206 Jehovahs Witnesses are the first of the religious communities to obtain religious society status and, given the low membership numbers of the remaining ten, likely to be the last for a very long time.
Interestingly, about half* of Austria’s recognized religious societies would not qualify for recognition under the 1997 law.
Although no longer technically a sect cult (until today the Federal Bureau for Sect Cult Affairs had oversight), the Jehovas Witnesses know they have a long way to go before achieving public acceptance, if the grudging acknowledgement by the Catholic working group on ideology, the constant references to telephone sex, blood transfusions and shunning of ex-members in the press as well as reader comments (here and here) are any indication.
Still, good for them for persevering and good for Austria for embracing, however tentatively/disdainfully, a little diversity.
*Old Catholic Church (14,621), Armenian Apostolic Church (1,824), Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria (1,623), Syriac Orthodox Church (1,589), United Methodist Church (1,236), Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (2,236), Jewish community (8,140), New Apostolic Church (4,217), Buddhist society (10,402)