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June 2022: Estonian Orthodox Churches and the war in Ukraine
Unlike in other Baltic states, there are two Orthodox churches in Estonia: the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, which is under the (...)

  • June 2022: Estonian Orthodox Churches and the war in Ukraine

Unlike in other Baltic states, there are two Orthodox churches in Estonia: the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, which is under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which is part of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).

Before the war, the head of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Yevgeny of Tallinn and all Estonia, had already gained attention with controversial statements about Ukraine. On 5 February 2022, the largest Estonian daily Postimees published an article about the aggression of the Russian Orthodox Church in Africa, i.e. the invasion of the territory of the patriarchate of Alexandria, which also serves the political goals of the Russian authorities. As a response, Metropolitan Yevgeny published an article, claiming that the ROC rejected accusations that the church was engaged in politics.

Yevgeny is the head of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate since 2018 and was nominated to this position by the Patriarchate of Moscow. He had no significant contact with Estonia before his election. Soon after his election he was mentioned in the yearbook of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service, because under his leadership the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate joined the propaganda campaign against the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which was created in early 2019, and the Patriarchate of Constantinople, who had supported the creation of the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Regarding Yevgeny’s views, the Foreign Intelligence Service considered it necessary to note that he had already visited Crimea in the spring of 2014, i.e. immediately after its annexation by the Russian Federation.

After the full-scale war started in February 2022, Yevgeny continued using the same arguments, although it is evident that the Russian Orthodox Church is directly involved in the war. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has repeatedly denied to Ukraine statehood and the right for self-determination.

The speech of Patriarch Kirill on February 24, when the war began, was published a day later on the website of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. On March 2 Metropolitan Yevgeny issued a statement of his own. He repeated his understanding that the church had nothing to do with politics. He called for prayer for peace soon, but there was no mention of his condemnation of Russian aggression in his statement. He also said that political divisions and war must not divide Christians.

The vague statements made by Yevgeny after the Russian aggression caused a debate in Estonian press and social media in early March as to whether the activities of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate should be restricted or banned in Estonia. At the same time, several Orthodox members of the Moscow Patriarchate congregations, led by the world-famous composer Arvo Pärt, appealed to Patriarch Kirill with a request to speak up for an immediate end of the war. Among the signatories were Orthodoxes from Russia, Belarus, European countries and the United States.

On March 7, the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church (EAOC), under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, passed a statement calling for peace in Ukraine as soon as possible and condemning Russia’s unjust war of conquest. The EAOC statement also emphasised that people must not be misled by sleazy news and propaganda that try to downplay or justify this terrible war. The Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, in cooperation with the Ukrainian community, is organising in several cities services for war refugees who have arrived in Estonia. Other churches, including Lutherans, Catholics and Free Churches, are also providing assistance to war refugees.

The Council of Estonian Churches, which brings together ten Estonian Christian religious associations, had at first a modest position and did not rush to speak on Ukraine. The president of the Estonian Council of Churches Andres Põder, who retired 1st of April, even managed to defend the vague position of the Council in Estonian media and claimed that the Estonian Council of Churches had issued a few days before the war a prophetic a statement for peace, also defending Yevgeny’s statement and not doubting his sincerity. He was probably hoping with this to keep the council together and avoid conflicts. Realising the absurdity of the latter statement, nearly a month after the beginning of the war, the Council finally adopted a proper statement on March 17. It referred to a document adopted by the UN General Assembly condemning Russia’s aggression and expressed solidarity with the position of the UN. Attacks on civilian targets were condemned separately. The document was also signed by Metropolitan Yevgeny of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Unfortunately, this did not achieve any change in understanding of the leader of the Moscow Patriarchate in Estonia. On March 30 he gave an interview in which he refused to recognise Russia as an aggressor and admitted that at the request of their church, the reference to Vladimir Putin was left out from the statement of the Council of Churches. He said he had agreed with the statement of the Council of Churches, but left it to each person to decide who was to blame for the war and who was the aggressor. Yevgeny said that, because he was not familiar with politics, he could not say who was to blame for the war, adding that he had instead heard the Russian side claiming that the Russian attack was preventive in order to prevent an attack on Ukraine a few days later. According to him, the responsibility for resolving the conflict also laid on the West.

This absurd position is fundamentally in line with that of Patriarch Kirill, who in recent months has spoken of foreign enemies of Russia and Ukraine trying to drive a wedge between the two peoples. Thus, of course, there was no criticism of Kirill from Yevgeny. Yevgeny also testified that on March 20, i.e. nearly a month after the war, he attended the liturgy with Kirill at the cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, saying that his participation had been decided a long time ago.

It is difficult to say whether it is a fear to express one’s position, as it is in the case for some clergy in Russia, or sympathy for the actions of the Russian authorities, or if Yevgeniy is just a simple-minded person, who thinks that the ROC can be excluded from politics when it is a major ideological pillar of the Russian world and of the aggression against Ukraine. In any case, the position of the head of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and his political line make it difficult to provide Russian-speaking Orthodox people living in Estonia with adequate information about the war in Ukraine, and this is a problem both for Estonian society, and specifically for the Orthodox community which is part of the society.

D 23 June 2022    APriit Rohtmets


November 2021: Cuts in Estonian defence endanger the sustainability of Military chaplaincy
In May 2021 the Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces Lieutenant General Martin Herem announced (...)

  • November 2021: Cuts in Estonian defence endanger the sustainability of Military chaplaincy

In May 2021 the Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces Lieutenant General Martin Herem announced that, due to financial cuts in defence sector, the chaplaincy service will most likely be disbanded. The same fate awaited the military orchestra. According to the reform only one chaplain, a coordinator, would remain in place and would organise the fulfilling of religious needs of military staff. The military chaplaincy was established in 1995 and has been part of the Estonian Defence Forces since. Chaplains have accompanied Estonian soldiers also in foreign missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Commenting on the reform Herem explained that, “if someone in the daily ministry needs Christian pastoral care, this will be arranged via the local church. And if he or she belongs to another denomination, there is a coordinator for them, who will find the right church in time.” Herem also described the timeline of the reform, explaining that the cuts were first drafted already in 2020, because the corona virus was slowing down the economy.

The Estonian Council of Churches (ECC), representing the vast majority of the Estonian Christian community, responded that the decision seemed to be ideological rather than related with finances. The president of the ECC Andres Põder declared that there had been no complaints or critique over the activity of chaplains. In a meeting with the representatives of the ECC, Herem claimed that statistics proved that psychologists are more useful to the defence forces, but added that if the funding came from outside, the chaplaincy could perhaps continue as part of the defence forces. The ECC turned to Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and to head of the Parliament, former Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, to find the necessary funds to guarantee the sustainability of the chaplaincy. Several chaplains explained in the media that psychologists cannot replace chaplains, because chaplains were present at all times and covered a larger scale of tasks that the psychologists could.

Still, the reform has been steadily carried out. By November 2021 most of the chaplains have lost their job. Only a few are still in place, waiting for the reform to be finished in the coming months. The coordinator, as promised, will replace the chief chaplain and will coordinate all matters related to religion. Another chaplain will serve as an assistant to the coordinator. The final outcome of the reform and the detailed plan on how allow the Estonian Defence Forces to use local congregations for soldiers’ religious needs is yet to be defined.

  • October 2021: Anti-vaccination Advocates are Conservative Christians

While in the spring of 2019, religious associations and their leaders were quietly adapting to the situation caused by the new virus, the first critical speeches and writings about restrictions and state power were already being given or published by April. They came primarily from conservative Christian circles. Both the ban on public worship and the wider obligation to submit to secular authority were criticised. The basis was that the word of God was to be considered more important than the word of a man. The same criticism continued in November 2020, when the second wave of the virus began in Estonia.

At the end of December 2020, vaccination of the Estonian population started. Initially, doctors and the elderly were vaccinated, and from early spring the vaccination of the entire population began. The vaccination was initially successful because it took place in a situation where the second wave of the virus had reached its peak.

In February 2021, religious associations instructed their members on how to communicate with members of their congregations about vaccination. The church government of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is the largest religious association of Estonia, wrote to their clergy: “When deciding upon their own vaccination, clergy and church associates must follow expert advice, their conscience, Christian charity, and responsibility to their fellows and all others. When advising others on vaccination, it is not permitted for clergy to share recommendations on refraining from, postponing, or refusing vaccination, even if the pastor themselves are not getting vaccinated. The clergy, who had been critical of the country’s steps to suspend public worship in 2020, began to criticise the church leadership, saying it was the first time since the Soviet occupation that clergy have been told what they can or cannot say to their church members.

Illimar Toomet, a pastor at the Central-Estonian Märjamaa congregation who spoke on the subject, also mentioned the stem cells of embryos that had lost their lives through abortion and had been used in developing the vaccine. This argument was widely used by conservative Christians elsewhere in the world. They claimed that it made the use of the vaccine unethical. The Estonian press also asked who decides which deaths are allowed and which are not, drawing a comparison with the fact that abortions are allowed in Estonia.

At the same time, some clerics called for people to get vaccination and confirmed that the benefits outweighed the potential harm. The leader of the local Catholics, Bishop Philippe Jourdan, called it an act of love that allowed everyone to signal that they cared for each other, and supported Pope Francis’s call for vaccination

The pace of vaccination slowed down in the summer, and more and more articles sceptical of vaccination were published. Among the vocal protestors, there were also conservative Lutheran clergymen, who had previously spoken out against abortion and the legalisation of same-sex cohabitation, and the representatives of Foundation for the Protection of the Family and Tradition, whose leaders belong to the Catholic Church. The foundation is part of the ultraconservative Tradition, Family, Property movement that has spread from Brazil. The organisation has also contact with the Ordo Iuris movement in Poland.

Veiko Vihuri, a Lutheran clergyman, argued that vaccination is a belief in progress, an attempt to assert a revolutionary mindset that seeks to revolutionise the world through human reason, freeing people from the combs of religion and morality to create a new type of future through science and progressive ideologies. He added that, of course, such a being should also be free from the limits set by nature, be it the aging of the biological body or its susceptibility to disease.

When the requirement for a vaccine passport was introduced in Estonia from the beginning of August, Vihuri immediately claimed that the Republic of Estonia was no longer democratic because people were divided on the basis of vaccination. At the same time, the Lutheran church did not introduce the use of vaccination passport.

The introduction of the vaccination passport was followed in August by anti-vaccination demonstrations. The largest demonstration took place on 23 October 2021 in Tallinn and was organised by the Foundation for the Protection of the Family and Tradition. Speaking in front of nearly 10,000 people, Veiko Vihuri called for an end to discrimination and the distinction between vaccinated and non-vaccinated people, as well as for the promotion of vaccination. In October, when the demonstration took place, Estonia was at the peak of the third wave of the coronavirus, which makes Estonia the country with the highest infection rate in Europe.

  • September 2021: The ordination of a Lutheran gay pastor causes a discussion in the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church

On September 11, Meelis Süld from Estonia was ordained a priest of the Lutheran Church in Great Britain. Süld is known in Estonia as a radio broadcaster of the Estonian Public Broadcasting, which hosts the weekly church life program. He is one of the leaders of the Estonian Gay Christian Society The ordination to priesthood was carried out by Bishop Tor Berger Jørgensen.

Meelis Süld’s desire to become a Lutheran pastor was known in Estonia, because he received a master’s degree from a private university owned by the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is a prerequisite for becoming a priest. This training is usually followed by a year-long pastoral seminar, which ends with clerical examinations. Meelis Süld wanted to be accepted to a pastoral seminary, but the Archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, Urmas Viilma, announced that according to the principles of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, gay men are not ordained priests. At the same time, Viilma was ready to write a letter of recommendation to Süld, so that he could ask for ordination in Great Britain to . Both the British and Estonian Lutheran Churches belong to the Lutheran World Federation and are in communion. This means that after his ordination, Meelis Süld had the right to work as a visiting priest in a congregation in Estonia.

The ordination service on September 11 caused a scandal in Estonia, not only because of the ordination itself, but because of the participation of Bishop Tiit Salumäe from the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church. There are three bishops in the EELC office, in addition to the archbishop. Among other duties, Tiit Salumäe is responsible for supervising Estonian diaspora congregations. During his visit to Great Britain, Salumäe visited Estonian congregations in Great Britain and partners of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church in England. He was accompanied by Meelis Süld.

Tiit Salumäe’s participation in the ordination service, during which he took part the ritual of laying hands, received a sharp reaction among the conservative members of the Lutheran Church, and the topic also gained attention in the secular media. Fifty-five deacons and priests, and a similar number of lay people, turned to the bishops of the EELC demanding that they remain firmly in line with the current position of the EELC, and condemn Tiit Salumäe’s participation in Meelis Süld’s ordination service.

The church government has already convened a working group in the spring to develop a strategy on communicating and discussing theologically sensitive issues in the church. Nevertheless, the case ended with Bishop Salumäe asking for forgiveness in the ecclesiastical press for attending the ordination service. The church leadership confirmed that attitudes toward homosexuality have not changed in the church. To this day, the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church does not allow the ordination of homosexuals, nor does it bless or perform marriage of same-sex couples.

D 25 November 2021    APriit Rohtmets


May 2020: Estonian religious associations during the first wave of the pandemic in Spring 2020
The Government of the Republic of Estonia decided on 12 March 2020 to declare a situation of (...)

  • May 2020: Estonian religious associations during the first wave of the pandemic in Spring 2020

The Government of the Republic of Estonia decided on 12 March 2020 to declare a situation of emergency. Initially, it was meant to last until 1 May, but it was extended in April and lasted until 17 May 2020. Among other restrictions, all public gatherings were prohibited.
Religious associations made first preparations for the possible spread of the coronavirus already as early as March, when it was clear that the spread of the virus would soon gain momentum. Masks were stocked, hand avoidance was advised and hand disinfection facilities were set up. For example, the consecrated water touched by those entering the church in the Peter and Paul Cathedral of the Catholic Church in Tallinn was removed. The Orthodox churches considered it necessary to clean more often the surfaces which were kissed. However, the cancellation of services was not considered necessary and the communion was celebrated as before (Eesti Rahvusringhääling).
The first messages about the restriction of worship by religious associations came just before the announcement of the emergency situation. On 12 March 2020, the consistory of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church informed the congregations that in the coming weeks people should be informed that it is possible to participate in worship via radio or the Internet instead of coming to church. In congregations where more than a hundred people are expected to attend the services, the services must be canceled, but the church door had to be kept open so that people could enter for prayer. To disperse people, it was recommended that services be held during the week or at different times on Sundays. Physical contact, e.g. the greeting of peace, was not allowed; there had to be a proper distance between those sitting in the church benches (initially about 1 meter was recommended). Church coffee and other forms of communication after the service had to be cancelled. Conferences, concerts and other events also had to be canceled or postponed. Despite the restrictions, the possibility of receiving a private communion remained in place. This had to be arranged by the clergy so that the clerc would dip the bread (oblation) himself in the wine and place it directly on the tongue of the faithful. All the rules of hygiene had to be followed on the Eucharist. The consistory also supported the idea that clergy and parish workers could, where they have the capacity to do so, help municipal employees, for example, in bringing food home for the elderly (see Eesti Evangeelne Luterlik Kirik website).
On the day the state of emergency was declared, the Estonian Council of Churches (consisting of ten Christian denominations) called on the congregations and all Estonians to pray for the people, and stated that the council and its member churches were concerned about the safety of individuals and the entire society. Therefore, the council asked to follow the instructions and recommendations given by the Government and relevant agencies and international organizations to prevent the spread of virus.
When on 12 March it was still unclear whether services were allowed or not, on 13 March 2020, Minister of Population Riina Solman met with the leaders of Estonian Council of Churches to discuss the requirements and restrictions arising from the state of emergency and stressed that all gatherings and public events, including services, should be stopped due to the potential risk of infection. She added that the inconvenience caused by the restrictions of an emergency was understandable, but it should also be understood that not only our health, but also the protection of lives was at stake. Solman acknowledged that in individual cases, religious services could be performed privately, but even in this case, the possible risk of infection to other people must be eliminated.
As a result of the meeting, emergency instructions were given to congregations stating that all religious public organized events, including public worship services, church concerts and other gatherings, were postponed or cancelled until new instructions or emergency situations were completed. The statement emphasized that the religious freedom of all Estonians was guaranteed even in an emergency, but that consideration of the protection of human health had also to be taken into account. Private religious services (pastoral conversations, worship and communion) were still allowed. However, they had to be organized in such a way as to exclude the risk of infection to other people. The Estonian government allowed the churches and other places of worship to remain open in order to meet people’s personal religious needs. While in most cases churches remained opened, the Estonian Islamic Center in Tallinn closed its doors completely. As it was the time of Ramadan, members of the centre organised a food aid to frontline workers and those in need.
On 16 March 2020, the Minister of Population specified that, as crowded gatherings were prohibited, restrictions also applied to important family events, such as weddings, funerals and birthdays. It was possible to exceptionally apply for a visa to enter the country when coming from abroad for a funeral.
The state offered its assistance in broadcasting services, and on the proposal of the Minister of Population, a Sunday service was included in the Estonian Television programme schedule from March 22. Minister Solman emphasised that the State understood the inconvenience caused by the emergency, but said that it was in the interests of protecting the health of people living in Estonia.
Through the Ministry of Social Affairs, the chaplaincy for pastoral care started working on making emergency pastoral care available and a telephone counselling was launched on 17 March 2020, with which medical institutions and nursing homes received a personal pastoral worker.
Fearing that members of Christian denominations might violate the national ban on public services, before Easter, Roman Catholic Bishop Philippe Jourdan, Metropolitan of the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church Stefanus, and Metropolitan Jevgeni of the Estonian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate urged people in a recorded message not to come to church and to stay safely at home. A few cases were reported, where liturgy was secretly held, but no sanctions followed.
Although at first the religious associations and their leaders adapted agreeably to the new situation, in April the first critical speeches and writings about restrictions were published. The criticism was especially sharp among the conservatives. Similar statements from Europe were often cited.
Mid-April, the conservative online magazine Our Church asked whether the church should obediently obey state orders or whether it should listen to the word of God rather than the word of man, referring to the New Testament Book of Acts (Acts 5:29). The author of the article, Veiko Vihuri, declared that the secular authorities do not have the right to order the Church not to hold services. He called it a tyrannical abuse of power. He also criticized church leaders and clergy who had been more obedient to worldly powers than to God’s command: “When the Church closes its doors and ceases its services, it is no longer a Church.” Vihuri mentioned a comparison between the situation of the early Church and the modern pandemic, when the gathering for worship was for several periods illegal and the will of the state authorities was ignored or defied. "God also has his demands", Vihuri concluded.
The understanding that the status of Churches was different from that of cafes, football matches, or other public places and events was increasingly heard in April and May, especially when the gradual opening of the society started to be discussed. At the end of April, the Archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, Urmas Viilma, demanded that the restrictions on the churches be eased. On April 22, he prepared a series of proposals, which were approved the following day by the Estonian Council of Churches. They were also presented to the Prime Minister and Head of the emergency board, Jüri Ratas. Among other things, Viilma justified his claim by the fact that representatives of other organizations in various fields also turned to the Government with proposals to ease restrictions. According to the proposal, worship had to be restored under certain conditions, which included limiting the number of people in the service, installing disinfectants and keeping a two meters distance. Separate rules were established for the clergy to use personal protective equipment and to avoid physical contact. The Council of Churches wanted the relief to take effect on 1 May 2020, and from 15 May 2020 in the Saaremaa island, which witnessed a severe infection rate.
As no decision followed, Viilma considered his right to publicly signal to the representatives of the state that the church wished to resume worship services. On May 3rd, he announced in media that he invites clergy to ring church bells on Monday, Wednesday and Friday of the upcoming week. This decision reflected the disappointment that the churches could not open their doors from 1 May. Although Viilma explained that his aim was to signal that the churches were ready to open their doors, it was interpreted in political circles as a rebellion against the state authorities. This was characterized by the statement of Helle-Moonika Helme, Deputy Chairman of the Estonian Parliament (Riigikogu) faction of the Estonian Conservative People’s Party, that Viilma was already engaged in politics before the elections and was still doing politics. Helme regretted this because it was a public health issue. Helme also referred to state support, which was intended to compensate for the loss of income during the service. Conservative circles in the Lutheran Church were critical of Helme’s views and asked if the shopping malls would really be reopened before the churches. According to the Minister of Population Riina Solman, the ban on public services would be lifted when the Government would decide to ease other restrictions as well. She did not criticise Viilma’s call, but recommended that, as long as indoor services were prohibited, services could be provided outdoors.
On 5 May 2020 the Government of the Republic decided that the restriction on public gatherings will cease to apply to religious services from 10 May 2020. A demand of keeping a distance of two meters stayed in place. Congregations also had to ensure that disinfectants were available. As the situation eased already in May and the restrictions were proportionally lifted, there were no legal complaints in Estonia from religious associations.
As of May 17, when the emergency situation ended, 1774 infected people had been diagnosed, with 69 520 initial tests made. Since March, 63 people had died of the disease.
After the restrictions were lifted, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas sent a letter of appreciation to the Estonian Council of Churches for the help they provided in fighting the virus.
On 16th May 2020, a commemoration service was held for the victims of the virus. Gratitude was expressed by the Council of Churches to those who had made a significant contribution in fighting the virus. Among others, the Minister of Population Riina Solman and the Chief Medical Officer of the Health Board, Dr. Arkadi Popov, spoke and received the honors.

  • April 2020: Financial support for Estonian religious communities during the pandemic in 2020

During the pandemic and in the state of emergency declared by the Estonian goverment on 13 March 2020, a decision was taken on 24 April by the Government to provide 2 million Euros for the support of religious communities in Estonia (see the Estonian Council of Churches website).
The explanatory letter stated that the aim of the measure was to support religious associations whose activities were severely disrupted during the crisis, but which continue to provide people with both spiritual and social assistance. Due to the limitations of the emergency situation, the activities of religious associations in earning their own income were significantly limited. According to the government, there has been an increase in the number of people turning to churches during the crisis.

D 4 January 2021    APriit Rohtmets


June 2019: Religious Associations in the Debate about Same-Sex Unions in Estonia
The issue of recognising same-sex unions has been discussed in Estonian society since the early 2000s. In 2005, (...)

  • June 2019: Religious Associations in the Debate about Same-Sex Unions in Estonia

The issue of recognising same-sex unions has been discussed in Estonian society since the early 2000s. In 2005, the new draft of the family law declared marriage as a union between a man and a woman, whichand initiated a public debate of how same-sex unions should be recognised. The Estonian constitution, which was passed in 1992, does not specify that marriage is a union between a man and a woman, but it declares that ‘family’ is under the protection of the law. Family, again, is not in any way defined. The first phase of the discussion ended with a proposition made by a number of NGOs to draft a new partnership law and give all couples equal rights.
The second phase began in 2008, when the Ministry of Justice announced that it was working on a separate law to recognise registered partnerships of same-sex couples. The law, for example, provided inheritance and shared property ownership rights to same-sex couples. When the draft was made public, both the churches separately and the Estonian Council of Churches (ECC), representing 10 religious associations, passed a declaration on the issue, stating that they were opposed to the law to recognise registered partnerships. According to the ECC, in the Bible, homosexual practices were considered a sin and therefore the ECC could not support any other family regulations than the one between a man and a woman.
In autumn of 2010, there was a clash in the Lutheran church when Rev Heino Nurk, who had been ordained in 1983, was fired because the government of the Lutheran church said that he had gone against the doctrine and ethical norms of the church. In the summer of 2010, Nurk had registered a Society of Gay Christians, whose members asked for equal rights for heterosexual and gay Christians within the church.
This was followed by two petitions, both published by the Lutheran clergy on a special petition internet site in September 2011. First, the Humanist Christian Petition called the church to recognise different views, regardless of sex, education, sexual orientation, etc., so that all Christians would feel welcome and have equal rights in the church. Likewise, every church member had the right and obligation to hold a view on the matters of the church. The petition also dealt with the issue of the Bible, saying that in the Bible one needed to distinguish the social norms of the time when the Bible was written and timeless religious norms. A few days later, a petition of traditional Christianity was released. That petition said that religious freedom of the last decades could lead to a dead end and therefore it was necessary for the church to stay firmly behind its traditional position, which according to the petition the church had always held. The Bible was to be read with ‘religious eyes’ and it was certainly necessary to consider it as a basis in formulating social norms.
After the interference of the Chancellor of Justice Indrek Teder in May 2011, with his request that the Ministry of Justice should introduce a civil partnership law, because the current situation, which did not legally recognise same-sex relationships, contradicted the Estonian constitution, a new and more heated public discussion began. By 2012, the Ministry of Justice had a draft of the law ready which reached the parliament by spring 2014. It was called the Registered Partnership Act (Kooseluseadus).
In 2014, before the law was ready to go to the parliamentary session for voting, the ECC sent an open letter to the parliament, and once again declared its support to the so-called traditional family and marriage between a man and a woman. Other questions were asked in the letter: how would it be guaranteed that the old way of understanding family and marriage would not be overruled, and that the new law would not cause mistrust and intolerance? What were the next steps planned? How did the law affect children, and their rights for an equally natural treatment by their fathers and mothers? How did it affect adoption?

During the discussions, the NGO Society for the Protection of Tradition and the Family (SPTF), ran by conservative Catholic circles, was established. It helped to set up a united stand for the conservatives, who in spring 2014 started a campaign against the Registered Partnership Act. A petition on paper was sent to thousands and thousands of homes, to be signed by those who supported the cause promoted by the SPTF. Altogether nearly 37,000 people expressed their support to the petition. A few years later, the conservative website Objektiiv was launched, which is still run by the SPTF, publishes articles against abortion and the current politics of the European Union, and is strongly anti-immigration.
The Registered Partnership Act was submitted to the Parliament on 17 April 2014 and was passed on 9 October (40 for, and 38 against). Several members abstained from voting. President Toomas Hendrik Ilves signed the act on the same day, and it took effect on the 1st of January 2016.
However, the adoption of the act did not mean that the discussion and a severe contradiction between different social groups ceased to exist. There are two lines of development to follow. One is related to the Registered Partnership Act, and the other one to the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia.
The Registered Partnership Act took effect without implementing measures, and was, therefore, likely to cause a number of legal problems. In 2015, the new government, now including the conservative party Pro Patria, decided that the parliament, and not the government, should pass the measures for a full implementation of the law. So far, it has not happened, and after the parliamentary elections in March 2019, with an even more conservative government and parliament than earlier, it will probably not take place in the coming years either. At the same time, in spring 2018, the Estonian Supreme Court ruled that the law was still in effect and should be enforced, despite the lack of implementing measures.
The position of religious communities has become more diverse. Over the years, the number of clergy who publicly declare their support to the Registered Partnership Act has risen. In this respect, the Lutheran Rev Annika Laats received the most supportive and condemning reaction, when in October 2017 in a TV show she asked from a young ECP politician why he was condemning and frightening people on the issue of gays and the act. The Lutheran church asked Laats to its government meeting, but did not take any action. At the same time, theological discussion over the matter has remained quite modest, so that only a few scientific articles by biblical scholars from the University of Tartu and the University of Tallinn have been published, but they have largely been ignored by religious associations, or caused dissatisfaction, arguing that the faculty of theology at the University of Tartu is too liberal.
By 2017, there appeared an old aspect newly discovered, namely the aim to change the constitution. The issue was raised by Urmas Viilma, the archbishop of the Lutheran church, who was the first to affirm that same-sex couples needed protection too, but to do that religious associations needed to be sure that the state of marriage would be protected by the law and would only mean a man-woman union. During its parliamentary session, the Lutheran church proposed that the constitution should be altered, so that it would include a definition of marriage. Although the idea received support from the church and has by now also received support by the ECC, it has angered the most conservative voices, who already in 2017 and thereafter have repeated that the Registered Partnership Act has to be abolished. They are supported by the CCP. At the same time during the parliamentary session of the Lutheran church Rev Mart Salumäe gave an interview to the Estonian National Television and claimed that even during the Soviet occupation period the church had not been as hostile and angry towards minorities as nowadays and there had always been gay pastors in the church, some had even held a rank of a dean (the Lutheran church consists of deaneries). Annika Laats was amazed over the church’s attempt to regulate the life of those who do not belong to the church (According to the 2011 census, only 29% of the population claim that they belong to a certain religious association, more than 95% of them are Christians).
After the parliamentary elections in March 2019, the ECP as a government party has begun to fight to change the constitution in order to add the possibility of an easier way to organize a referendum to either pass or abolish laws. They have come out loud, hoping to abolish the Registered Partnership Act. However, to change the constitution it has to get a majority in two following parliaments, so that the issue has to receive the majority of votes of the parliament, which will be elected in 2023 too. So far, the constitution has been altered only a few times, and it has always been after a wide agreement between all political parties has been reached.

Source: Priit Rohtmets. Eesti usuelu 100 aastat. Tallinn: Post Factum, 2019.

  • March 2019: Churches in the Estonian 2019 Parliamentary Elections

Parliamentary elections were held in Estonia on 3 March 2019. More than ever before, churches and religious organisations publicly presented their views and, although openly no church favoured a political party, churches wanted to have an influence in promoting parties with views similar to their own.
Estonian society, similarly to many European societies, is going through a period of antagonism, with a rising right-wing Estonian Conservative People’s Party (CPP) that is opposing to Estonian mainstream politics, and claims to offer a conservative and nationalistic alternative. CPP describes the current political mainstream as a globalising and left-wing liberal policy. In its rhetoric, the conservative party has become very loud, and it turned the campaign for parliament into a confrontation based on the so-called traditional values. The CPP loudly supports the abolition of the law recognizing same-sex unions, reducing money given for abortions, and defining the marriage as a union between a man and a woman. In its rhetoric, the CPP is against the European Union.

Although a few pastors stood for parliament (most of them belonged either to the CPP or to a more moderate conservative party Pro Patria), Christian religious communities in general, which form up to 95% of Estonia’s religious landscape, presented their views in a public letter, signed in September 2018 by the Estonian Council of Churches (ECC). The letter was sent to political parties represented in the parliament, and reflected the Council’s view on the subjects considered the most important before the upcoming parliamentary elections in March 2019. The Council has an agreement contract with the Government of Estonia, signed in 2002, and another contract with the ministry of Justice was signed just a month before the elections and is the major partner of the state in religious affairs.

The council paper held 9 propositions (in Estonian):
1. In legal practice, the freedom of conscience and religion should be implemented in all possible cases and in a balanced context of other freedoms (lately the balance in Council’s opinion has not been adopted – for example in the case of law on the equal treatment, which has not yet been implemented but has been negotiated).
2. The state must value marriage and family as the basis of the society. The council supports the proposition to change the constitution in order to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Estonian Health Insurance Fund should finance pregnancy crisis counselling in favour of financing abortions. The council also thinks that family strengthening programmes should be better financed, and that shelters for women and young mothers should be financially supported.
3. Religious education at schools, which is a voluntary subject, should be more easily available. This requires an analysis of what measures should be implemented to increase the number of public schools teaching religion.
4. The state should value more the participation of religious organisations in local communities. As the churches have a network covering the country, the measures of social services and youth and cultural work need the support of the state, because sometimes the help given by the local government is not enough.
5. In legal practice, the exceptional position of religious organisations should be taken into account.
6. The council supports the continuation of the project to renovate sacred buildings, because they are a part of Estonian cultural heritage. The project ended in 2018, and in the future the renovation of sacred places is not separately financed.
7. To implement a ‘rule of a percentage’, so that a person could according to their wish give 1% of their income to an NGO of their choice. The donation could be divided between three organisations maximum. The donations received by pensioners and people with low income should be reimbursed by the Estonian tax and Customs Board. (It has to be noted that, already in 1919, the Republic of Estonia implemented a law according to which it was the business of religious organisations to collect the tax from their members. The same policy was implemented after Estonia regained its independence in 1991.)
8. The council supports the creation of a hospital chaplaincy in each hospital. Currently there are only a few chaplains working in larger hospitals. The council also supports the idea to create a chaplaincy for schools and asks the state to help to work out the necessary measures.
9. The value tax paid for the renovation of sacred buildings should be returned to churches. This would motivate religious organisations to invest in renovating their buildings.

The proposals soon had a follow-up when in February 2019 Urmas Viilma, the archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, the leader of the largest church among Estonians, published a “Compass for Christians” (see Delfi and Meie Kirik), where he had analysed the programmes of political parties and put them in the context of the propositions made by the ECC.
He gave 0 to 3 points to each proposal made by the ECC, which he found in the party programmes. He gave 0 to parties who did not favour the proposal or held a view opposite to it. One to two points were given when parties had similar proposals or supported the proposals to an extent that the implementation of the proposal was realistic in the coming future, and 3 when there was a total overlap of the ECC proposal and party program. The results turned out to be in favour of the ruling Centre party with 32 points, Pro Patria with 28 points, social Democrats with 19 points, Free Party with 15 points, CPP with 14 points and a new political party, Estonia 200, with 6 points.
While most of the political parties did not comment on Viilma’s compass, Estonia 200 and CPP claimed that the archbishop was just complying with the ruling parties, who had financially supported the church by ending a discussion over a church in central Tallinn with a compensation. (See Delfi, in Estonian.) As a result, an ultraconservative webpage Objektiiv, which has been since its launch in 2015 until November 2018 led by the Lutheran pastor Veiko Vihuri, questioned the archbishop’s decision to rate Christian values as important as, for example, the renovation of church buildings. The webpage called the compass, “depressingly primitive and obedient”. In response, the editors of Objektiiv, which represents the views of the most conservative Christians, created their own compass, claiming that the CPP represented best the views of Christians. The compass was sent by post mail to most of the Estonians.
The elections turned out in favour of liberal parties – the Reform Party got 33,7% and the Centre Party 25,7% of the votes. However, the two liberal parties were not willing to unite, because the current Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre Party) wanted to remain Prime Minister and, therefore, was willing to form a coalition with the moderate pro-Patria (11,9% of the votes) and the CPP (18,8%). The social democrats got 9,9% of the votes. This caused a storm in Estonian society, which continued for months after the elections.
Urmas Viilma compared the coalition agreement with the propositions of the ECC, and published a “Christian coalition agreement”, eventually claiming that the coalition agreement between Centre Party, pro-Patria and the CPP had mentioned 2/3 of the ECC propositions as something they would like to tackle over the coming years.

D 25 June 2019    APriit Rohtmets


January 2017: A new mosque in Tallinn?
Already for years, there have been rumors and a public discussion about the erection of a new mosque in Tallinn – the capital of Estonia. Until now, local (...)

  • January 2017: A new mosque in Tallinn?

Already for years, there have been rumors and a public discussion about the erection of a new mosque in Tallinn – the capital of Estonia. Until now, local Muslims have gathered in an Islamic Center, which also functioned as a mosque. In 2015, the head Imam of local Muslim community, Ildar Muhhamedšin, declared publicly that a mosque would help better integration of Muslims and refugees in the Estonian society. After this, a group of Muslims asked for financial support from the Republic of Estonia and from the city of Tallinn to build a new mosque. However, as religious associations are self-governed, and the state as well as municipalities do not erect sacred buildings in Estonia, this application was turned down. Some members of the Estonian Islamic community have said that taking into account the number of Estonian Muslims, which is relatively small (in 2011 census it was little more than 1500), there is actually no need for a new mosque and that the Islamic Center would do just fine.
This happens at the same time as an emerging conflict within the Estonian Muslim community. The tension is mostly caused by the allegedly illegal financial actions of Muhhamedšin in handling the finances of Estonian Islamic community. It has divided the community. A criminal investigation is going on. In August 2016, it was rumored in Estonian press that Muhhamedšin wanted to buy land in Kadriorg – a region in Tallinn, where the residence of the President of the Republic of Estonia is located, and build a mosque there. Muhhamedšin denied later these claims, emphasizing nevertheless that there was a need for a new mosque, because of a division in the Estonian Muslim community. He claimed that the new converts and residents in Estonia had taken over the Estonian Islamic Center, and, therefore, the old community was seeking to build a new mosque. In reality, the division within the community is not so clearly based on the identity of ‘new’ and ‘old’ members; it is more between those who support Muhhamedšin and those who criticize him.
In October 2016, during a visit to the Republic of Estonia, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu confirmed that Turkey was ready to financially support the erection of a new mosque to Estonia, when an agreement with Estonian authorities would be reached. The minister claimed that the representatives of moderate Islam would need to become more active, because otherwise terrorists and extremists would prevail. The Prime Minister of the Republic of Estonia Taavi Rõivas commented on the statement, saying that he had no knowledge that the Islamic community in Estonia wanted a new mosque.
The news given by Turkey’s foreign minister came just a few months after Turkish authorities had confirmed that there was no plan to support the erection of a new mosque to Estonia. Soon after the visit of the Turkish Foreign Minister, Estonian media reported that Turkish officials visited Estonia with the aim to investigate the possibilities for the building of a new mosque.
Conservative politicians are the most opposed to the erection of a new mosque. For example, MP Martin Helme (Conservative People’s Party) has spoken against it, saying that it is a symbol of cultural and religious superiority. A call to oppose the erection of a new mosque via an online petition was made in October 2016. By the beginning of 2017, more than 3,500 people have signed the petition.

Source in English:
Ringo Ringvee, "Estonia", in Oliver Scharbrodt (ed.), Yearbook of Muslims in Europe, vol. 8., Brill, 2017, pp. 221-238.

Sources in Estonian:
- in Postimees: "Mufti: mošee aitaks põgenikke Eesti ühiskonda integreerida", "Türgi on valmis rajama eestlaste nõusolekul Eestisse mošee", "Rõivas: palvemaja rajamiseks ei pea riigilt luba küsima", "Peaimaam: Kadriorgu pole plaanis mošeed rajada",
- in Petitsioon: "Oleme vastu mošee ehitamisele Tallinna või mujale Eestisse!",
- in Epl.delfi: "Mošee on kultuurilise vallutuse sümbol", "Eesti muslimite imaam sättis end elama koguduse rahaga ostetud külaliskorterisse".

D 2 February 2017    APriit Rohtmets


October 2016: Celebrating the Reformation by kicking the Virgin Mary?
In October 2016, the year-long celebration of the Lutheran reformation began with an ecumenical service in Tallinn. Together (...)

October 2016: Celebrating the Reformation by kicking the Virgin Mary?

In October 2016, the year-long celebration of the Lutheran reformation began with an ecumenical service in Tallinn. Together with the Reformation, the Lutheran church celebrates the 100th anniversary of its independence, and the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia in 2018. This is marked by a series of events, gathered under the title Landmarks of Freedom.
Just a few months before that, the Estonian National Museum opened in Tartu. The museum, founded in 1909, has for decades operated in various buildings and has waited for its own house for more than a century. After a grand opening ceremony, an exhibit gained much attention – in a section where the Lutheran reformation was described, the destruction of sacred pictures and church belongings during the reformation was mentioned. An animation was provided: every visitor could identify themselves as one of the vandals who committed the destruction, by kicking an image of the Virgin Mary with their foot. She would then fall into pieces, and after seconds would become one again.
A question was then raised by religious leaders, and gained so much attention from the public in the following weeks that it sadly overshadowed the opening of the new museum. Church leaders emphasized that the kicking was an unpedagogical way of interpreting the Reformation, because it was against Christian principles to kick someone. The fact that it was the Virgin Mary made the kicking even worse, because without any explanation, this could be interpreted as kicking a young woman. On the other hand, some defended the interpretation, emphasizing the need to remind that the Reformation had not been as smooth a process as what we might think it was. What made the public reaction even worse, was the first explanation given by the museum. The PR person of the museum defended the interpretation, claiming that in a society where there was no state church, it was possible to make fun about religion, and interpret historical as well as religious events with a sense of humor. The director of the Museum, Tõnis Lukas, later tried to soften the interpretation, explaining that the museum did not want to make fun of any particular group in the society, but wanted to unite people. He agreed that kicking the Virgin Mary was probably not the best way to explain the Lutheran Reformation, and decided to remove the possibility to kick her offered as an animation. Consequently, the exhibit itself was not removed, but the animation and the kicking were. The visitor can now only see how the Virgin Mary collapses, and after a few seconds, is put together again.

Priit Rohtmets

- September 2016: Should the President go to church?

In September 2016, Kersti Kaljulaid took office as the new President of the Republic of Estonia. After an inauguration ceremony in the Parliament, she welcomed guests in an art museum in Kadriorg Castle. Less than a few months later, the biggest daily newspaper Postimees published a newsflash claiming that the Archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, Urmas Viilma, had addressed the President after her election and before her inauguration, and had invited her to a service at the Lutheran Dome Cathedral near the Parliament house after her inauguration ceremony. Such an invitation is a custom which goes back to the presidential inauguration of Lennart Meri, who was the first president to take office in 1992, after the Soviet occupation had ended in 1991. Since 1991, a religious service has been a part of all major state anniversaries and many other State events. Although the Republic of Estonia does not have a State church, its relationship to the church is described positively in the constitution, and it is mentioned that the State and religious associations cooperate in the fields which are deemed important by the two of them.
President Kaljulaid decided to turn down the invitation of Archbishop Viilma. After her decision was made public, for another two months the newspaper headlines discussed her right to do so. On the one side, some emphasized freedom of religion and conscience of an individual (§40 in the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia), claiming that the President, like any other citizen, has a right to choose whether to attend the service or not. On the other side, critics stressed the need to maintain the traditions, because given the young age of the State, there are few of them anyway. A more serious critique underlined the President’s duty to be the president of all the people of Estonia, including the members of religious associations. Critics said that her action insulted Christians.
President Kaljulaid explained that she respected the work that religious associations are doing in Estonia, but considered religion to be a private matter. She added that it would be dishonest to participate in services, when she didn’t have this habit before her presidential election. At the same time, she said that in the past, she had accepted invitations to events of religious nature and with representatives of religious associations. For example, during her tenure at the European Court of auditors (she served there from 2004 until 2016), she was invited to the Vatican by Pope Francis, and she went there because she considered it customary to accept the invitation.
Other articles, on the same topic, accused Archbishop Urmas Viilma of having the agenda to make Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church into a state church. The truth is that, after Viilma had been turned down by the President, he had offered various solutions to the question, including holding an ecumenical service, but the President did not change her mind.
In a National Television Christmas interview, the President said that the neutrality of a state was the best guarantee against outside intervention and influence coming from other religions. She said that it enabled us to understand what was foreign and strange to us, and what were our own customs and traditions. Some agree with her, and some claim that in order to have an understanding of “the other”, the society needs to understand its particular religious identity, and religious as well as cultural past. Critics have said that her understanding of a state’s neutral position cannot be fully carried out without recognizing the Christian past of Estonia.
For Christmas, the President decided to visit places where people have to work during the holidays, e.g. fire brigade, military, etc. During the visit, she also went to a service carried out by a Lutheran military chaplain. The President later defined it as a "contemplation service". Before Christmas, she had argued in an interview that the tradition of Christmas was much older than Christianity and had various meanings. At the same time, she has confirmed that she values the work that churches are doing. As proof of that conviction, during her regional calls she has several times dropped by local congregations, with the aim to recognize and praise the work which they are accomplishing.

Sources (in Estonian):
in Postimees: "Kaljulaid selgitas oma suhet kirikuga", "Viilma: olen väga rõõmus, et president Kaljulaid ei näe kirikul ainult tseremoniaalset rolli",
in Delfi: "EELK peapiiskop: president Kaljulaid käis kirikus"

Priit Rohtmets
  • Debates in 2015-2016: Ban on burqas?

In 2015, the Estonian public discussion was heated by two topics: the discussions on the European migration crisis, and a debate on whether burqas and niqabs should be banned in public space in Estonia. The discussion was initiated on 7 August 2015 by the Minister of Social Protection from the conservative Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit) who noted that Estonia should regulate certain behaviour alien to Estonian customs. Although the idea had wider implications concerning public safety and security aspects, the discussion became defined in the public as "the burqa-ban." The reactions to this idea were diverse. While the Gender Equality Commissioner argued that prohibiting some culturally or religiously motivated garments would breach constitutional rights, the former Estonian judge at the European Court of Human Rights Rait Maruste referred to the practice of the ECtHR allowing limitations to certain religious dress codes. The Estonian Women’s Associations Roundtable supported the proposal to prohibit wearing niqabs and other dress codes that are "discriminating against women."
The reactions from the Estonian Muslim communities were diverse as well. Ildar Muhhamedšin, Imam of the Estonian Islamic Congregation, considered the proposed idea as a violation of religious freedom, and expressed his willingness to turn to the EU institutions for help if the ban was implemented. However, the former chairman of the Estonian Islamic Congregation, Timur Seifullen, from the Tatar ethnic community, considered the idea to prohibit facial covering as reasonable. He stressed that niqabs and burqas are regional particularities, and not something required by Islam as a religion.
As a result of the proposal by the Minister of Social Protection, the Ministry of Justice began to draft legislation that would regulate the wearing of face-covering garments in the public square. In September 2016, there is still no regulation implemented concerning facial covering in public.

- Mihelson, Helen, "Naisteühenduste ümarlaud toetab burkade keelustamist avalikus ruumis" (Roundtable of Women Associations gives support to the prohibition of burqas in public), Postimees, 27 November 2015;
- "Eesti tatarlane: Koraan ei nõua naistelt näo katmist" (Estonian Tatar: Qur’an does not require face covering of women), Estonian Public Broadcasting News, 12 August 2015;
- "Võrdõigusvolinik: püüd keelustada näokatteid on põhiseadusega vastuolus" (Equality Commissioner: attempt to ban face covering is violating the Constitution), Estonian Public Broadcasting News, 7 August 2015;
- "Arvamused nägu katvate riiete keelamise osas lähevad Eestis lahku" (Opinions on prohibiting full face covering garments differ in Estonia), Estonian Public Broadcasting News, 8 August 2015.

Ringo Ringvee

D 5 October 2016    APriit Rohtmets ARingo Ringvee


May 2013: Animal Protection Act
In 2012 questions concerning religious slaughtering were discussed as the amendment in the Animal Protection Act was drafted. The first version of the draft (...)

  • May 2013: Animal Protection Act

In 2012 questions concerning religious slaughtering were discussed as the amendment in the Animal Protection Act was drafted. The first version of the draft intended to outlaw all non-stunned slaughtering. Due to the pressure from the Jewish community an amendment in the Act then allowed post-cut stunning.

  • May 2013: Protection of Historical holy sites in nature

In 2008 the Estonian Ministry of Culture implemented a development plan for the protection of historical holy sites in nature. The debates concerning the protection of the historical holy sites in nature had been going on since the mid 2000s, the main problem being the use of sacred holy sites (groves, sacred hills etc) for economical profit making by the forest industry for example. The development plan that ended in 2012 will be continued in 2014.

  • 14 May 2013: Amendment in Family Law Act

In 2012 the Estonian Ministry of Justice started to draft an amendment in the Family Law Act that would regulate same sex partnerships. While the draft is supported by the sexual minorities, it has also raised strong reactions from traditional Christian circles. In 2012 a group of lay Catholics established the Foundation for the Protection of Family and Traditional Values. The Foundation started to collect signatures for their appeal for the protection of traditional family values. In one and a half month, the Foundation collected 38.000 signatures for their appeal, almost four times as much as what they had hoped for. On 14th May 2013, the appeal was handed over to the Speaker of the Parliament. The debate on the draft continues.

D 25 September 2013    ARingo Ringvee

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