Mart Nutt:The study on religious freedom in Estonia was conducted cooperatively between the Estonian Institute of Human Rights and Turu-uuringute AS and the same method was used as in the case of “Human Rights in Estonia 2012.”The research was structured as a four-part study. First of all, there was a survey of the population (1,000 respondents) and the findings of this survey.Secondly, interviews with experts – 17 theoreticians and practitioners. In the third part, international organizations’ positions on religious freedom in Estonia are provided. The fourth part sets out some recommendations for government institutions, mainly on the basis of the expert opinions.
Karin Reivart:The main topics were the following:opinion regarding the status of religious freedom in Estonia, violations of religious freedom, whether respondents have had to conceal their religious convictions, sources on information on religious freedom, importance of religious freedom in Estonia and the world, how actively it is defended, views on comparative religion and overviews of Bible stories in schools, attitudes to Christian values; and finally we looked at what religion is professed by respondents.
Of the respondents, 91% said they concurred that freedom of religion was protected in Estonia. Neopaganists and Taaraists were least likely to concur. 2% of respondents said that they or someone they know had had their freedom of religion violated. The experts identified three reasons here: 1) the movement led by neopaganists and Taaraists to preserve and protect sacred places of worship, such as sacred groves; 2) issues in relation to allowing crucifixes to be worn in schools or the military; 3) respondents may have been thinking of the problems Satanists encountered in registering as a religious society.
4% had concealed religious beliefs. This was seen more often among younger people and among neopaganists and Taaraists. The press and the Internet are the main information sources in relation to freedom of religion. 14% of respondents have not received such information anywhere. 68% percent said religious freedom was important in Estonia, and the same finding was seen with regard to the role in the world. Close to 60 percent said Estonia should take a more active stance in defending religious freedom. 74 percent felt that health care and social welfare institutions should provide a possibility to meet clergy and perform religious rites. It was also believed that local government should ensure burials according to their religious traditions. Some 68% of respondents said they would like comparative world religion to be taught in schools. And 54 percent of respondents said they would want an overview of Bible stories in schools. Only 8% said that protection of religious freedom has become worse in the last 10 years. Fifty-four percent said society must be based above all on Christian values. Yet 60 percent said they agreed with the statement that the values of no one religion should dominate. Positive attitudes toward religion were claimed by 35%, while 60% were neutral and 2% negative. Of the various religions, 20% said they were Lutheran, 24% identified as Orthodox, 2% each as Catholic and Taaraist, while 5% professed other religions. 45% percent did not identify with any faith.
Experts agreed that freedom of religion was protected and relations between member churches in the Estonian Council of Churches and the state were good. Shortcomings were seen in the education system. Some of the Council of Churches non-members sense unequal treatment from the state. The neopaganist Maavalla Koda (Estonian House for Taaraist and Native Religion Followers) was the group that saw the most problems.A representative from gay Christians said the state support system for religious societies could conform to the principle of according equal treatment to all in the country.Critical attitudes from society and media were noted; there has been disparagement and ridicule. Compared to other countries in Europe, the situation is quite good; it is important to educate officials and the population, prepare for potential future problems.
Erik Salumäe: The third part of the study pertained to opinions international organizations and other countries regarding freedom of religion in Estonia. Under conventions it has acceded to, Estonia submits reports to international organizations and receives feedback. The study shows that these organizations have no reproach for the freedom of religion in Estonia; they essentially have no comments or recommended improvements. One of the few examples was the opinion from the Council of Europe advisory committee in 2011, which acknowledged progress in solving the matter of the Moscow Patriarchate Estonian Orthodox Church building ownership and which recommended that constructive dialogue be continued. Estonia responded that open and transparent dialogue would be continued with all religious societies, The US State Department’s annual report also affirmed that the freedom of religion is guaranteed in Estonia on the level of legislation and in practice.Very few restrictions are in place on religious activities.
The suggestions and recommendations made in experts’ interviews and in the course of the everyday work are as follows: First, under current law the status of religious societies as legal persons is a subcategory of the non-profit organization. Many religious societies lack a non-profit-organization-like structure, though. This makes it complicated to classify them as non-profits. Thus a separate status should be considered. Second, both of the Orthodox churches operating in Estonia have sent proposals. According to Estonian laws, bishoprics do not have rights of a legal person – this could be changed. The third recommendation was protection for confessional secrets. This is enshrined in the Churches and Congregations Act, but the Code of Criminal Procedure allows this to be overridden during judicial proceedings. The experience of otter countries also attests to the sensitivity of this topic, but confessional secrets could nevertheless be guaranteed. Fourth, in many cases, the state has established reporting requirements that are beyond the means of smaller congregations which do not have extensive economic activity. The state could take a differentiated approach and make the law less stringent.
Philippe Jourdan:I want to point out two things. First, we have many people who think that society must be based on Christian values. This is a positive surprise. What’s negative is that most find the founding private schools and Christian schools unnecessary. We probably have to do a better job explaining to people that there’s no reason to fear. Catholic schools are not set up because we aren’t satisfied with public schools. We just believe that the education of children is above all the obligation and responsibility of their parents, not of the state. It is complicated to compare countries with such different backgrounds as are Estonia and France. In France, since the Revolution there has always been the principle of laicité, which means that the state is neutral to religious societies and separate from the church. In practice, this means that the state is in opposition to the church. This is a sensitive topic and causes problems if we recall the issues related to prohibiting religious symbols. This ideological background is much calmer in Estonia, and this creates better prospects for cooperation between church and state.
Merilin Kiviorg:Our main task is to deal with preventing problems. We aren’t used to meeting different people and different cultures. We have to invest into officials, judges, schools to avoid unjustified fears and negative stereotypes. Great Britain has done good work in this regard, but it was forced to as the situation on the ground developed earlier.
Mart Laanemäe:I was at the foundation meeting of an apartment association yesterday. These were actually garages, but the law recognizes such an entity only as apartment association. This story is an example of what Salumäe was just talking about with legal concerns with regard to religious societies.
When I moved to Germany and registered there, I was asked about my religion. The reason is that taxation depends on the religion you specify, some of them go to your church. In Estonia no one asks this, although we’re in the same legal space. I think we could learn from this, actually.
I’d emphasize another thing. We know human rights are universal but all aspects of our daily life are open to negotiation. What vexes diplomats and politicians is not enacting law, but actually enforcing the desired norms behind them. Estonian society has actually given the state very good opportunities to participate in any negotiations dealing with freedom of religion. Estonians define themselves by their language, not religion or location. As our goal has always been equality, we are always prepared to share it with others.
Merilin Kiviorg:I am a little sceptical of how tolerant Estonia is and some statistical surveys have also shown that tolerance is not high. It may be that we’re tolerant on the surface, but as migration pressure grows, this may not be the case. I agree that Estonia has a good position for negotiations. I also agree that human rights on paper and reality are different things.Recently, the EU foreign affairs council issued guidelines on promotion of protection of freedom of religion, and human rights related principles are only one aspect. The political, financial, supervisory and other factors – which should be used for instance in the countries affected by Arab Spring – must also be considered.
Philippe Jourdan:Today the question has come up: is there religious freedom for those who have no faith – is there the freedom not to be religious? Freedom of religion also means freedom of conscience. Individual freedom of religion is currently less widespread than general freedom of religion.Another thing that is very important in increasingly secular Europe is that no one is obligated to do anything that goes against his or her conscience. This includes the freedom to express your beliefs on, say, family policy without being accused of violating the public order. Recently Western Europe has given us examples where people are brought before a judge and if you look at what they have done, you don’t see incitement to hatred. We could also ask how much society should be expected to give up traditions out of concern for other people’s sensibilities. These topics also involve a legalistic aspect. How does the law see the church? Is a church more than just a non-profit?A couple of years ago, Romanian Orthodox clerics had a dispute that went all the way to Brussels, and it is very complicated to interpret what a church is in the first place. The church was treated as a non-profit, but later the attitude changed.
Mart Laanemäe:In the Middle East, the roles of various faiths in government have always caused problems, and they still do today. They get along when the situation is stable but stability all too often comes from an authoritarian government that inevitably violates someone’s rights. Here a dilemma comes up. Which is more important: Can people be who they are (within certain limits) or should they have all of the possibilities that their human rights entitle them to, and would they get along as they did before?In the context of Arab Spring, all of the affected countries face a completely new situation, totally new opportunities have unfolded and given an opportunity to new movements, as they have to religious groups who were formerly constrained. For the EU, the question is which competing communities to support. First we need to ensure general stability, political stability, general respect for human rights. Thus the problems of one group cannot be declared more important than other groups’ problems. Influence must be created for ensuring that all aspirants to power honour human rights.
Philippe Jourdan:I’d add that every step taken by international forces has major, often unforeseeable consequences in the context of Arab Spring. The historical context must always be understood. For instance, Middle East Christians have almost always sided with the rulers, as otherwise the small minority could not survive. That doesn’t mean they condone violence by dictators. The international community has a record of unfair intervention in these conflicts, but it would also be very unfair if they did not now intervene.
Merilin Kiviorg:To comment on the Lautsi court case (in which it was ruled that Italy can keep crucifixes on the walls of schools), I’d say crucifixes are allowed thanks to the fact that other symbols are allowed. This is something we need to think about in Estonia and Europe – if we ban everything, does that mean neutrality and respect? As for the establishment of a trade union in the Orthodox Church, the Estonian Human Rights Centre initially found that clergy had the right to do so within the church. The plenary session changed the decision, but there was a clear trend of some human rights leaders wanting to see liberal changes within religious sects. Perhaps we should admit that such changes will take time and dialogue is better than pressure of legislation. The court left an option for this in the future, by deciding that the situations would be looked at case by case.