Erik Salumäe

Political and institutional developments

As of 1 January 2013 ten churches (with 346 congregations), ten associations of congregations (with 194 congregations), 74 separate congregations, seven monasteries and one institute of church operating based on an international agreement (Roman Catholic Church).[1]

In 2013 (as in previous years) an appropriation form the budget of the Ministry of the Interior was made (and it will be done in 2014, too) in support of religious associations (671,072 euros in 2013, and 695,372 euros in 2014) which, according to the explanatory memorandum, aims to support ecumenical activities via the Estonian Council of Churches, which includes Estonian Public Broadcasting’s religious broadcasts, children and youth work across churches, publishing (including electronic publications), national and international dialogue between religion, health insurance of monks and nuns, media publications Eesti Kirik and Raadio 7, Eesti Piibliselts, organising Meremeeste Misjon, in-service training organised by denominational institutes of higher education and other ecumenical projects.[2]

The national programme on conservation and development of places of worship that began in 2003 ended in 2013. As of 2013 the programme had been allocated 9.23 million euros, which formed 22.8% of the initially planned sum.[3] The Minister of Culture approved the programme on conservation and development of places of worship for 2014-2018 on 28 November 2013, which has been allocated 722,800 euros from the 2014 budget.[4]

The Estonian Council of Churches, which brings together seven churches, two associations of congregations and one singular congregation founded the foundation Ühiskonnatöö SA, which aims to “support social and economic development of congregations, ecclesiastical authorities and organisations via initiating, coordinating, counselling and administrating programmes and projects and coordinating and organising the related research, development and in-service training.”[5]

There are chaplaincies in Defence Forces of Estonia, the Defence League, the Police and Border Guard Board and prisons and houses of detention. In 2013 there were 13 chaplains in the Defence Forces, 4 chaplains in the Police and Border Guard Board, and 19 chaplains in prisons and houses of detention.[6]

A more thorough overview of the Muslim community in Estonia and the legislative regulations concerning it can be found in the 2013 compilation including all the European states called Yearbook of Muslims in Europe.[7] The chapter on Estonia has been written by the adviser at the religious affairs department at the Ministry of the Interior Ringo Ringvee. The number of Muslims is on the rise and more ethnic Estonians and Russians have joined the Muslim community than before.[8] In December of 2012 the cultural centre Iqra, which has a prayer room and a library, started its work in Tartu.[9]

Legislative developments

The Churches and Congregations Act was not amended in 2013 and there is no draft to that effect in Riigikogu or in the government of the Republic of Estonia.

In relation to religious associations there is a draft act in the legislative proceeding of the Riigikogu – the draft act initiated by the government on 9 September 2013 on apartment ownership and apartment associations (462 SE).[10] The draft act omits the second sentence of § 25 (1) of the General Part of the Civil Code Act “General partnerships, limited partnerships, private limited companies, public limited companies, commercial associations, foundations and non-profit associations are legal persons in private law.” This list, which the religious association is not a part of, has thus far raised questions with religious associations as to why religious associations are not a type of legal persons in private law. Now the question is solved in such a way that the exhaustive list is left out of the Code. The explanatory memorandum states that the religious association is also a type of legal person (as is, for example, the trade union, and the apartment association will be in the future), which is why it would be legally clearer if there was no such exhaustive list in the Code.

The act amending the Animal Protection Act and other appropriate acts, which was adopted 5 December 2012, came into force 1 January 2013. It also contains the new wording of § 17 “Slaughter of animals for religious purposes”. Before the draft act (288 SE) was presented to Riigikogu, it was preceded by a thorough discussion during a couple of years between Jewish organisations, the Muslim community and the Ministry of Agriculture. The various opinions regarding this provision of the draft act (including regarding freedom of religion) have been thoroughly discussed in the explanatory memorandum to the draft act, which is available on the Riigikogu website.[11] The wording in the final text of the act is a compromise, which is acceptable to religious associations as well as the animal protection organisations.

The discussions on the possible amendment to § 151 of the Penal Code (the so-called anti incitement of hatred draft act) continued in the Ministry of Justice in the beginning of 2013.[12] The Estonian Council of Churches, having expressed the worry over the draft act on 28 September 2012 (“The ministers of religion or theologians can no longer be sure that if they publicly express (whether in service, media or publicly speaking) the views stemming from the teaching of their church for example regarding abortion of homosexual lifestyle, that someone else, simply due to having a different view on the issue, might see it as a systematic incitement of hatred or discrimination.”), submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Justice on 21 December 2012: “The explanatory memorandum should contain a clear view, according to which § 151 of the Penal Code would definitely not include expression of such views stemming from the teaching of that church or congregation and socio-ethical views, by the church or congregation, its ministers and members. (Of course, it must be precluded that such a religious association can be founded, and its activity protected, which deliberately intends to incite hatred as described in § 151 of the Penal Code.)”. The draft act submitted to Riigikogu by the government on 9 December 2013 on amending the Penal Code and other relevant acts (554 SE)[13] does not contain a proposal to amend § 151 of the Penal Code, but the Ministry of Justice is still continuing a detailed legal analysis of it.

However, the aforementioned draft act 554 SE does contain the amendment of § 154 of the Penal Code “Violation of freedom of religion”. The explanatory memorandum[14]  states that this provision contradicts the international human rights. According to the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights the freedom of religion and the freedom of conscience can only be restricted regarding the external following of beliefs and on the condition that there is a legal basis for such restriction that is necessary in a democratic society in order to protect safety, order, health, morals or other persons’ fundamental rights or freedoms. The wording of § 154 of the Penal Code so far left the discretion on whether a carrying out of a religious service infringes on morals, rights or health of others, or breaches public order, to be decided on a particular case. The renewed provision defines punishable infringement of freedom of religion as interfering with religious affiliation or religious practices, attesting to presence or absence of a religious belief, with direct intent and without a legal basis. It could be presumed in a state based on the rule of law that freedom of conscience (the right to have or not to have and change one’s mind about religious beliefs) will not be restricted and that the restrictions for external freedom of religion based on law for the aforementioned purposes are proportionate. Therefore, it can be presumed that stopping a crime of religious motivation does not constitute a crime in itself. Liability of a legal person is also a factor.

Court practice

One of the judicial proceedings most pertaining to principles in 2013 was definitely the case regarding the application of Estonian Satanist Congregation to be entered into the register of religious associations. Estonian Satanist Congregation submitted the application on 2 February 2013, subsequent to which the registration department of Tartu County Court asked the Ministry of the Interior to form an opinion. After the Ministry of the Interior’s recommendation not to enter Estonian Satanist Congregation into the registry the registration department denied the application on 30 April 2013 referring to § 14 (2) 2 of the Churches and Congregations Act, according to which the registrar will not enter a religious association into the register if the activity of the religious association is detrimental to public order, health, morals or rights and freedoms of others. The Estonian Satanist Congregation appealed the ruling of the registrar to all court levels, but the Tartu County Court (court ruling of 15 October 2013) as well as Tartu Circuit Court (court ruling of 25 November 2013)[15] upheld the ruling of the registration department and the Supreme Court refused to accept the appeal against court ruling on 10 February 2014. The Estonian Satanist Congregation has promised to appeal the denial to enter them into the register of religious associations to the European Court of Human Rights.[16]

The foundations Tallinna Toomkooli SA and Püha Johannese Kooli SA running Christian private schools had to turn to court to get themselves on a list of associations with income tax incentives. According to the Estonian Tax and Customs Board these schools do not correspond to requirements stated in § 11 (2) 2 of the Income Tax Act – they are not charitable societies. The Tax and Customs Board admitted the complaint at court proceedings at Tallinn Administrative Court for “practical consideration” and the aforementioned foundations were added to the list of associations with income tax incentives in December 2013.[17]

Statistics and surveys

The Statistical Office published the results of the 2011 population and housing census (data fixed as of 31 December 2011) answering the questions regarding religion. The question was phrased in this wording: “Are you affiliated with a particular religion or belief?” and was posed to persons aged 15 and older, and could be answered on a voluntary basis.

According to the 2011 census 320,872 persons or 29% of Estonian population aged 15 and older are affiliated with a particular religion. This percentage has not changed in comparison to the previous, 2000 census.

During the period between the censuses, the number of religions in Estonia has increased. In 2011, 90 religious affiliations had followers. At the same time, 54% of the population aged 15 and older does not feel an affiliation to any religion. Compared to the 2000 census, the number of persons who did not wish to answer the question in relation to religion has increased, accounting for 14% in total. Relation to religion is unknown in case of nearly 2% of the population aged 15 and older.

In the 2011 census the most prevalent religion among population aged 15 and older was Orthodoxy (16% are affiliated with it) and Lutheranism (10% are affiliated with it).

19% of Estonians aged 15 and older are affiliated with a particular religion, the same is true  for 50% of non-Estonians.

Among Estonians Lutheranism is the most prevalent – 14% of Estonians aged 15 and older are affiliated with it. 27% of Finns, 15% of Germans and 14% of Latvians living in Estonia consider themselves Lutherans. 51% of Byelorussians, 50% of Ukrainians, 47% of Russians and 41% of Armenians feel an affiliation to Orthodoxy. 47% of Poles and 33% of Lithuanians living in Estonia are Catholics. Islamic religion is most widespread among Tatars.[18]

The number of persons affiliating with Taaraism and Neopaganism or the Estonian native religion has risen in comparison to the 2000 census (from 1058 to 2941).[19]

The most thorough survey regarding freedom of religion in 2013 was carried out by the Estonian Institute of Human Rights in cooperation with the Turu-uuringute AS. The survey “Freedom of Religion in Estonia 2013” consists of a public opinion survey (in which 1000 respondents were asked 28 questions) and of interviews with 17 experts (religious societies, non-profit associations, media and government representatives, theologians and legal scholars). The third part of the survey includes assessments from international organisations regarding the status of freedom of religion in Estonia and the fourth part sets out recommendations to government agencies. According to the report it seems that freedom of religion is guaranteed in Estonia. The international organisations have not made any pre-proofs regarding the status of freedom of religion in Estonia and their recommendations and comments to solve issues regarding freedom of religion have been brief. The entire text of the survey is published on the website of the Estonian Institute of Human Rights.[20]

The Pew Research Center operating in Washington has in recent years regularly compiled reports on restrictions to activities of religious associations.[21] The report expresses restrictions on the activity of religious associations and to freedom of religion that exist in every country, by the index of restrictions to religion. According to the report published on the website on 20 June 2013 Estonia belongs to the category with the lowest index – there are very few restrictions to religious activities.

According to § 124 (2) of the constitution a person refusing to take part in military service for religious or moral reasons is obliged to go through an alternative service. The number of persons in the alternative service has remained stable in previous years – as of end of 2013 there were 27 persons in alternative service (in 2012 there were 34 of them, and in 2011 there were 25).[22]

The number of state and municipal schools teaching religious education has increased. While there were 50 schools teaching religious education in 2011/2012 academic year, there were 70 in 2012/2013 academic year.[23]

Good practices

The application of protocol of common interests concluded between the Estonian Council of Churches and the government of Republic of Estonia in 2002, which includes annual meetings between the prime minister and the members of the management board of the Estonian Council of Churches is a good example of a good practice. Topics at the 19 November 2013 meeting included, among others, the cooperation between Estonian Council of Churches, its member churches and the government committees in preparation of the 100th anniversary of Republic of Estonia, the programme on places of worship, the expatriates’ programme, and valuing guaranteeing the right to freedom of religion and beliefs in international communication.[24]

There is a government committee on promoting cooperation between the government of Estonia and the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church,[25] an Orthodox Deputies’ Group in Riigikogu,[26] the members of Riigikogu regularly organise Prayer Breakfasts and there is an annual National Prayer Breakfast (the most recent one took place on 11 December 2013 at Riigikogu’s Conference Hall), which brings together representatives of Estonian politics, church, society, culture and non-governmental organisations. (The National Prayer Breakfast is an international event that takes place in 160 states all over the World and also annually at the European Parliament. The Prayer Breakfast also takes place in Tartu and several other towns in Estonia).[27]

The top leaders of the state met with internationally renowned church leaders in Estonia and abroad – Estonia was visited by Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia Kirill (in June of 2013) and Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, and Ecumenical Patriarch (in September of 2013), the Prime Minister Andrus Ansip participated in the inaugural mass for Pope Franciscus in Vatican on 19 March 2013 and invited the Pope to visit Estonia in 2015.[28]

The need for protection of natural places of worship is increasingly acknowledged. A support group for natural places of worship is active in Riigikogu.[29]

Noteworthy public discussions

The Centre of Sacred Natural Sites at University of Tartu, Hiite Maja Foundation and the Natural Sanctuaries Support Group at Riigikogu organised a conference at Riigikogu Conference Hall 9 May 2013 on the topic of sacred natural sites as nationally protected areas, the needs and opportunities, 2008-2020. The viewpoint that work on the development plan on sacred natural sites should continue was unanimously supported. The work on charting sacred natural sites at risk of disappearing should have to continue as soon as possible and the amendments to acts of law enabling protection of sacred sites should have to be made. The improved raising awareness of sacred sites in public and closer cooperation between agencies and other parties was also considered to be very important.[30]

A panel discussion was held at the Annual Conference of Human Rights on 10 December 2013 on the topic of freedom of religion in Estonia and the European Union – the assessments and trends. It discussed questions relating to freedom of religion in European Union and valuing freedom of religion in the foreign policy of the EU. The question was whether and to what extent does the EU consider guaranteeing freedom of religion in other countries (including the so-called Arab Spring countries) to be important. Topics were discussed, which, on one hand, stem from the increase of proportion of people  in the EU Member States affiliating with non-Christian religions, and on the other hand, from constantly expanding secularisation. The panel discussed these issues from the viewpoint of the churches, legal scholars and makers of foreign policies.[31]

Trends in 2013

Several Christian private schools founded by religious associations or their active members started work (for example, Püha Johannese Kool, Püha Miikaeli Kool and Kaarli Kool in Tallinn, Tartu Luterlik Peetri Kool and Kohila Mõisakool).

New places of worship have been built or are currently being built – Patriarch Kirill inaugurated the Orthodox church in Tallinn, Lasnamäe in June of 2013, Mustamäe congregation of the Lutheran congregation carried out an architectural contest for a new church building,[32] in November of 2013 the new chapel of Pärnu congregation of the Roman Catholic Church was inaugurated.[33]

The activity regarding sacred natural sites has become more intense. There was a development plan compiled by the Ministry of Culture for years 2008-2012 on Estonian historic sacred natural places of worship. “Investigating and conservation” were meant for emergency and quick rescue works of historic national protected areas. Preparations are being made for the development plan on sacred national sites 2013-2020, which mainly aims to make amendments to acts of law enabling protection of sacred sites, to chart them, to carry out an inventory and to protect them.[34]

[1] Data from the website of Ministry of the Interior department for religious affairs.

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[3] Pühakodade säilitamine ja areng. Riiklik programm 2003—2013 [Conservation and development of places of worship. National programme 2003—2013]. National Heritage Board. Tallinn. 2013. Page 11.

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[5] Eesti Kirikute Nõukogu 2013. a tegevusaruanne [Estonian Council of Churches 2013 management report]. Tallinn. 2014. Page 88.

[6] Eesti Kirikute Nõukogu 2013. a tegevusaruanne. Pages 43, 46, 52.

[7] Yearbook of Muslims in Europe. Volume 5. Leiden, Boston. 2013. Pages 229-236.

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[15] Tartu Circuit Court 25 November 2013 court ruling in civil matter no. 2-13-24298.

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[23] Schihalejev, Olga. (in print 2014). Religious Education at Schools in Estonia. Religious Education at Schools in Europe. Part 3: Northern Europe. Toim. Jäggle, Martin; Rothgangel, Martin. Vienna University Press.

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[31] Video recording of the panel is also available at:

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