THREE centuries after the Ottoman forces were driven back from its gates, Vienna now has two leading personalities who have expressed some remarkably robust and edgy thoughts about the need for Europe to defend its Christian heritage and keep fundamentalist Islam at bay. That is what many headlines would suggest, at any rate.
One, as my colleague Charlemagne writes in the print edition, is the 31-year-old victor in this month’s general election, Sebastian Kurz. As a cabinet minister and leader of the centre-right Austrian People’s Party, one of his trademark policies has been the closer regulation of Islam in Austria. He was the prime mover of a law on Islam which actually mandates something that many other European governments talk about but hesitate to put into practice. The law seeks to cut off foreign sources of funding from mosques and imams, with the aim of fostering a form of Islam which is better adapted to a European, liberal-democratic environment. At a public meeting with young, mostly female students of Islam, he stoutly defended this policy: “Our constitution lays down that religous communities should be self-financing…You will not find any Protestant ministers here (in Austria) who are on the payroll of (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel.”
Mr Kurz also believes firmly that having a religiously neutral state (in the sense that it treats all citizens equally) should not preclude the retention of Christian symbols, and the cross in particular, in public places such as schools and court-rooms.
The other highly-placed Viennese personality with a reputation as a “Christian soldier” is Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, a blue-blooded prince of the church who has been an influential figure in global Catholicism. Rather unusually, he can claim to have been personally close to the last three popes. He was conservative enough to bond with Pope John Paul II and with Benedict XVI, a fellow Teuton. But he has adopted a slightly more liberal position in support of Pope Francis. For example, he has backed the current pope in his somewhat more flexible ideas on the admission of divorced people to the rite of Holy Communion.
The cardinal caused some astonishment a year ago at a ceremony that marked the 333rd anniversary of the defeat of the Ottomans in the battle of Vienna. He asked rhetorically: “Will there be an Islamic conquest of Europe? Many Muslims want that and say, Europe is at an end.”
Challenged to elaborate on this thought, the cardinal replied that his aim was not to provoke but to state a fact. Both Christianity and Islam were evangelistic religions which believed themselves to be bearers of a universal truth. It was therefore entirely natural for Muslims to hope that Europe would eventually be won over to their faith, just as he as a Christian would love to see his religion flourish again in places like Turkey or North Africa where it once shone forth. In other words, he was sounding the trumpet for a battle of metaphysical ideas, not a physical contest.
Can we expect the feisty cardinal and the boy-wonder politician to collaborate in advancing the Christian cause? To some extent, they have done so already. For example, in co-sponsoring acts of prayer for Christians being persecuted in the Middle East, a matter on which both have voiced strong feelings.
But in truth there are limits to the politics of Christian nativism in today’s Austria, as both gentlemen know. In interviews, Mr Kurz has always insisted that the Christian heritage and value-system are precious to him, but he does not make any claim to be a frequent church-goer. The demands of his job made it hard to attend Mass regularly but he found it important to attend on feast-days, he recently said. For all the magnificence of its Baroque churches, Vienna is now a pretty secular, cosmopolitan city and it would not take kindly to a political leader who presented a super-pious image. As for the cardinal, he may be a powerful figure in the Vatican but plenty of his compatriots have ceased to pay much attention to pronouncements from the pulpit. The threat to Austrian Christianity comes more from secularising indifference than from any rival religion.
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