Jan 13, 2010, 11:00 GMT
Vienna - A record number of Austrians left the Catholic Church in 2009, disgruntled by the Vatican's controversial decision to readmit a bishop who questioned the Holocaust, local media reported Wednesday. Last year, some 53,200 people disengaged from the country's biggest religious grouping, 31 per cent more than in the previous year. The wave of exits started after the Vatican re-admitted four ultraconservative bishops early in 2009, including Bishop Richard Williamson, who is known for his revisionist views on the Holocaust, the daily Die Presse reported. This was followed by an uproar over Rome's decision to designate the conservative Gerhard Wagner as an auxiliary bishop. Wagner, who withdrew amid the protests, had linked the Harry Potter childrens' books with satanism and had said that homosexuality is curable. A significant portion of Austrian Catholics see themselves as more liberal than the Vatican, opposing Rome's views on abortion, homosexuality or the ban on married priests. Many believers see their exit as an act of self-defence,' the liberal reform movement We are Church; said in a statement. The group said that Catholics were reacting to repressive and undemocratic policies of the Vatican. But a spokesman of the Vienna Archdiocese said that the current economic situation was also one reason why more people renounced their faith, as the there is a growing reluctance to pay church tax. The share of Catholics among the population has sunk to around 66 per cent, from 89 per cent in 1961, according to government statistics. There were 5.53 million Catholics in Austria as of December 31.