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Political Science in Europe

Contentious Relations: Religious Welfare Organisations and Governmental Politics in Austria

Social Welfare
Katharina Limacher
University of Vienna
Katharina Limacher
University of Vienna
Katharina Limacher
University of Vienna
Sieglinde Rosenberger
University of Vienna

In many European countries, religious welfare organizations have played a crucial role in providing social assistance for the poorest, including the reception of newcomers such as refugees and migrants (Dawid 2014, Simsa 2017). The relationship between these organizations and state institutions is mostly cooperative and supportive (Fix/Fix 2005). In Austria, however, activities of religious (Christian) welfare organizations has been highly contested by governmental actors as of late. In times of putting the migration and Islam issue on top of the political agenda, it is the Christian welfare organizations that came under pressure by the government composed of the Christian People’s Party and the far-right, populist FPÖ. For instance, the government has announced the withdrawal of certain commissions from religious welfare organizations, and their work has been criticised, accusing welfare organizations of making profits off an “asylum industry”.
Our paper aims at investigating these recent tensions by identifying events and providing explanations while looking at meso and macro factors. Methodically, we build on media reports, government working programs, and certain welfare policies as well as statements of the religious welfare organisations since 2000.
The paper is guided by two assumptions: First, we assume that religious welfare organizations aimed at taking up the role as political actors during and after the refugee inflows. This follows up on the idea that the drivers of change lie also within religious welfare organizations themselves and treats the 2015 refugee crisis as a turning point. It argues that during a politically contested phase, religious welfare organizations started to add activities and increasingly raised their voice on behalf of refugees. Second, we assume that the success of the far-right and the changing party constellation in government contribute to the rapid rise of the cultural cleavage in politics. Nevertheless, it remains a puzzle why Christian welfare organizations came under pressure when politics is polarizing along the divide between an explicitly Christian “us” and the Muslim “other”. Hence, we are interested in shedding light on the overlap and twists between migration, religion and far-right politics.
We see these developments as part of a larger transformation that the relation of religion and politics is currently undergoing. Thus, the discussion of recent tensions in the relation of religious welfare organizations and governmental politics does not only concern the role of the former in bridging the religious and secular sphere but has to be addressed as part of a larger trend.
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