Austria: Army To Cater For Muslims' Spiritual Needs

Vienna, Austria - About 1,000 Austrian Muslims serving in the country's army are to get their own imams, Austria's defence minister, Guenther Platter has announced. Muslim soldiers should have access to an imam in the same way that army chaplains minister to Austrian Catholic and Protestant soldiers, putting Islam on an equal footing with other officially recognised religions in Austria, Platter said, quoted by Die Presse newspaper. Muslims form about 3.5 percent of Austrian soldiers, according to Platter.

Die Presse said Platter's initiative came after problems involving strictly religious Muslims of Austrian nationality conscripted into the army. The most recent incident was when some of them refused to salute the Austrian flag, the paper reported. The paper also quoted an Austrian Army trainer as testifying that a monthly military parade, when the Austrian flag was raised, some of the Muslims conscripts turned away and visibly turned their backs on the flag.

To the surprise of commanding officers, the Muslim soldiers said the flag was incompatible with their religion and would not salute it in future, Die Presse reported. However, no disciplinary measures were taken against the soldiers, who were simply allowed to be absent from the flag parade. “That caused annoyance among the troops,” the paper quoted one officer as saying.

Islamic Community in Austria president Anas Schakfeh, was called in as a mediator. He stated clearly that "saluting the Austrian flag did not violate Islamic religious principles,” the Austrian News Agency reported.

Austrian trainers at the Maria Theresa Barracks in Vienna have complained that Muslim soldiers were often absent from duty, and could only be used for simple tasks in basic training, according to one non-commissioned officer. “Many of us had the impression that people classified as strictly religious Muslims took advantage of their position. For instance, they had to be relieved of duty to be allowed to pray," he said.

Muslims are required to pray five times a day and each session lasts 5-10 minutes, but any solider absent from duty for this purpose is required to make up the time, the Austrian military command pointed out. For instance, Islamic soldiers going to prayers on Friday at midday and missing the rest of the day, had to report for duty on Saturday instead. “They are often called in for Saturday or Sunday duty,” said a spokesman.

But non-commissioned officers, who did not want to be named, claimed it was too easy to get a certificate from the Islamic Community that they are a practising Muslim. “Some of the strictly-religious drink alcohol and eat pork, and we have also tested Muslims positive for drugs,” said one.

Schakfeh conceded there were possibly individual “black sheep,” but said that most kept to the rules and the certificates of strict religious observances were immediately withdrawn from those who transgressed.