A sign leading to the Islamic Centre mosque in Vienna. (Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters)

Igniting fresh controversy, Austria's parliament has approved significant changes to the country's "Law on Islam" — a revamping of a 103-year-old law to expand certain legal protections while also placing new restrictions on Muslim organizations and how adherents practice their faith.

While the changes were proposed years ago — long before attacks in France and Denmark by homegrown terrorists with extremist views — the reforms passed Wednesday are intended to "clearly combat" the influence of radical Islam, according to Austria's conservative foreign affairs minister Sebastian Kurz, Agence France-Presse reported.

Lawmakers made the changes to a 1912 law that codified Islam as an official religion in Austria. Now, Austria's roughly 450 Muslim organizations face new limits on foreign funding, a move that has generated criticism from around the world, since other religious communities can still receive international support. Many of Austria's roughly 500,000 Muslims hail from Turkey, which finances and sends imams to the European nation.

According to Austria's foreign ministry, imams cannot receive continuous financing under the law.

"Austria will go back 100 years in freedom with its Islam bill," said Turkey's head of religious affairs, Mehmet Gormez, the BBC reported.

The approved bill — referred to as the "Law on Islam" by the foreign ministry — also requires imams to be able to speak German, AFP reported. Muslim organizations are not required to use a standardized German translation of the Koran, but central tenets of the religion must be presented in German, a foreign ministry official told The Post.

Under the revamped law, Muslims have the right to seek clerics in institutions (such as hospitals) and the armed services; skip work on religious holidays; and eat and produce food according to religious law, Reuters reported.

The bill was backed by the country's Catholic bishops; Austria's main Muslim organization "grudgingly" accepted it while its youth arm opposed it, Reuters reported.

Protesters in Vienna on Feb. 24. (Herbert Neubauer/EPA)

And the changes faced opposition from the country's far-right party, which maintains 25 percent support in Austria, Reuters reported. The bill was deemed a "placebo" by the party, AFP reported.

About 170 people, half of whom are Chechens, have traveled from Austria to fight with the Islamic State, according to Austria's interior ministry. But as Reuters reported, the government's relationship with the domestic Muslim community had been relatively good.

As the bill was being considered, about 200 protesters demonstrated outside of parliament with signs reading "New Islam Law? Not with us!"

Kurz called the revamped law a "milestone" while also emphasizing that its passage is not a reaction to the recent Islamist attacks in France and Denmark, the BBC reported.

"What we want is to reduce the political influence and control from abroad and we want to give Islam the chance to develop freely within our society and in line with our common European values," he told the BBC.

 

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