Austrian Leaders Say ‘No’ to Strache

The far-right politician outraged Chancellor and Church by brandishing a crucifix ‘in vain’

Cover of News

Cover of News

When H. C. Strache, leader of the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) waved a wooden crucifix in front of a rain-soaked yet heated crowd at an anti-mosque demonstration in Vienna’s first district last month, he opened the flood gates of criticism from Austria’s leaders.

Not only are Austria’s top politicians now saying “enough is enough” to a man that Chancellor Faymann has recently dubbed a “hate-preacher,” but the country’s highest-ranking Catholic clerics are also adding their voices to the rising condemnation of Strache’s strategies.

The incident seemed like a deliberate provocation: During a controversial demonstration against the extension of a Turkish-Islamic centre in Vienna’s 20th District on May 14, Strache – a vocal campaigner for a total ban on the building of any further mosques in Vienna – brandished a crucifix before the crowd as they approached the march’s destination at the Rathausplatz.

This act was overshadowed at the time by remarks made by the demonstration’s organizer, Hannelore Schuster, who, over the public address system, quipped that being referred to as a “Nazi” had almost become a mark of honor.

Several days later, however, Strache again produced a crucifix before a crowd at another anti-mosque demonstration – and openly claimed to be the last line of defense for Christianity.

In the days that followed, many of Austria’s top decision makers broke their silence about Strache’s campaign methods, and criticism poured forth.

Among the strongest voices was Austrian Chancellor and Social Democrat (SPÖ) leader Werner Faymann, who termed Strache a Hassprediger (“hate-preacher”) before Parliament. President Heinz Fischer also called on Strache to stop being selective about religious doctrine and adhere to Christian principles of brotherly love when dealing with asylum seekers and others in need.

The fact that opposition politicians would jump on the opportunity to harangue the FPÖ leader – particularly given the falling support for the SPÖ – is not surprising.

What does surprise, however, is the angry reaction that came from the upper echelons of the Catholic clergy, who have spoke out, condemning Strache’s misuse of religious symbolism.

In his Ascension Day sermon on May 20, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn apologized to the congregation gathered in the Stephansdom for touching on politics, before going on to denounce the abuse of the cross in political campaigns. The cross is a symbol of love, Schönborn said, not of power.

Among other well-known priests to speak out against Strache was Provost Maximilian Fürnsinn, one of Austria’s most popular churchmen, who told the current affairs magazine NEWS said that “He who abuses the crucifix will stop at nothing.”

Indeed, Strache’s recent actions come on the back of a heavily-loaded and highly polarized EU parliamentary election campaign waged by the FPÖ. Among other things, the FPÖ has called for the permanent exclusion of Turkey, and, rather bizarrely, Israel, from EU membership – in spite of the fact that no official steps have ever been taken regarding Israeli membership in the European Union. In addition, placards around the city call for a Europe in the hands of Christians (“Abendland in Christenhand”).

Adding more fuel to the fire was Strache’s recent playing-down of Nazi vandalism of a former-work camp now serving as a Holocaust memorial. According to Strache, this was nothing more than a “childish prank.”

Strache’s initial reaction to the Church’s criticism was to slam the Church itself, accusing it of weakness and cowardice in the face of militant Islam and lambasting it for seeking dialogue with dangerous belief systems. Strache has since changed his tune, and is now himself seeking dialogue with the Church.

How the recent uproar surrounding Strache will play out in real terms has yet to be seen, although a certain litmus test will come in the FPÖ’s performance in the Jun. 7 EU elections.

If the recent controversy will slow Strache’s rise in popularity is debatable, with some commentators suggesting that the added media spotlight will ultimately help him. Austrian voters have recently shifted increasingly to the right, primarily to the FPÖ, as was seen again in May’s Arbeiterkammer (Chamber of Workers) elections, where groups linked to the Socialists support fell further, while the FPÖ increased their numbers across the board.

Also worrying many, Strache’s growing base is increasingly made up of the young, with a whopping 44% of first-time voters ticking the FPÖ box at last year’s general elections. Recent interviews conducted by NEWS among young Strache supporters showed that many of these feel disaffected by the message of the traditional big political parties, and believe that only Strache can provide solutions to Austria’s real problems.

It would seem unlikely then that criticism from those in the parties that youth voters have turned away from, or harsh words from a Church with dwindling influence, will do much to stop Strache’s own ascension among the young.

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