Austrian chancellor urges end to religious tensions

by Reuters
Monday, 25 August 2014 18:49 GMT

* Faymann meets religious leaders to discuss tensions

* Soccer match with Israeli team invaded by protesters

* Jewish community head accuses Muslims of agitation

VIENNA, Aug 25 (Reuters) - Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann called for peace and tolerance after meeting faith leaders on Monday amid mounting religious tensions highlighted by a violent protest against an Israeli soccer team last month.

"Only the community can prevent a spiral of violence," Chancellor Werner Faymann told reporters after inviting leaders of Austria's 16 officially recognised faiths to the chancellery.

The chancellor called the meeting after mostly Muslim protesters against Israel's offensive in Gaza invaded the pitch to attack Maccabi Haifa players at a friendly match against Lille in the Austrian town of Bischofshofen near Salzburg, causing play to be abandoned.

In addition, the Austrian-Israeli Society has accused President Heinz Fischer of bias for criticising Israel's response to rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip as being disproportionate and causing too many deaths.

Tensions with the Jewish community are especially sensitive in Austria, which became part of the Nazi Holocaust campaign when Adolf Hitler's Germany annexed the country in 1938.

The country's once-vibrant Jewish community has shrunk to around 15,000, mainly post-war immigrants from eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Fischer defended his comments at the weekend, saying not all criticism of Israel could be "raised to the level of anti-Semitism".

Oskar Deutsch, leader of Austria's Jewish community, singled out Muslims to blame. According to police, about 20 youths of Turkish origin staged the protest against Maccabi Haifa with Palestinian flags and anti-Israeli placards.

"Incidents with an Islamic background are on the rise, especially on the part of the Turkish community," he told the Kurier newspaper. "There is massive political agitation by Turkey. Radical-right incidents have stayed the same."

"There have been a number of demonstrations at which people have screamed 'Death to the Jews' or 'Death to the Israelis'. Swastikas were also visible. This is a red line that cannot be crossed," he added.

Roughly half a million Muslims live in Austria, representing about 6 percent of the population. They have complained as well about mounting Islamophobia, epitomised this month when a man attacked two elderly Muslim women in Vienna wearing headscarves.

Muslim religious sites have also been defaced by people who left severed pig heads or drew swastikas.

"We view with horror the increased attacks on Muslims and their institutions in Austria and Europe," the head of the Muslim Youth Austria group, Tugba Seker, said this month.

Roman Catholic Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna said there was no place in Austria for discrimination based on religious beliefs.

"This is a basic principle of our country and we have to fight for it," he told reporters after the meeting. (Reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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