Tuesday 18 January 2000
ECUMENICAL RELATIONS DAMAGED AS ESTONIA PLANS NEW
RELIGION LAW

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

The main casualty of Estonia's protracted process of drawing up a new law on
religion has been ecumenical relations between the country's Christian
Churches. Jockeying for state favours, mutual suspicion and backbiting have
destroyed ecumenical trust, even before the text of the draft law - approved in
principle by the cabinet on 4 January - has been presented to parliament. The
state meanwhile issues bland assurances that religious liberty will be respected
in the new law and that no religious groups will be favoured over others,
although the murky process of drawing up the text has left many religious
groups (especially those excluded from the drafting process) unconvinced of
the state's good intentions. Some religious leaders complain of the state's
`inexperience' in governing that has created this destructive controversy.

After regaining independence with the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991,
Estonia began to plan a democratic system for governing relationships between
the state and religious groups. The Law on Churches and Congregations was
adopted by parliament on 20 May 1993 and signed by President LENNART
MERI on 8 June 1993. However, moves began in 1996 to amend this
legislation.

ILMO AU, chairman of the religious board at the Ministry of the Interior,
explained to Keston News Service in a wide-ranging interview in his office in
Tallinn on 5 January the government's reasons for seeking to amend the law.
`The original law was adopted in 1993 and in the meantime many new laws
have been created and existing laws have been amended. In order to harmonise
the old law with other laws it is necessary to create a new law on churches and
congregations that accords with other laws.' He says the original proposal to
amend the law came from the Ministry of Justice and in 1996 a working group
was created in the Ministry of the Interior to draft the text.

`The draft was prepared and the government submitted it to parliament in
1998,' Au recounted. `It went through its first reading, but then came the
elections at the beginning of 1999 and a new parliament was elected.
According to procedure, all draft bills in parliament are returned when an
election is held. The working group reviewed the draft again and at the end of
1999 we submitted the draft to the government.' The cabinet discussed the draft
bill on 4 January, although there were several small amendments still to be
made to bring the text into line with the new income tax code that came into
force on 1 January 2000. Au was awaiting the written decision of the cabinet
on whether the draft bill had been approved in its entirety. Au declined to give
Keston a copy of the text. `As soon as the bill goes to parliament the text will
be posted on the parliament's website [www.riigikogu.ee] and will be available
to all,' Au told Keston.

According to Au, the cabinet made just one change to the draft his office had
submitted, omitting an article of the bill relating to the secrecy of the
confessional. `In drawing up this article we used the law in force in Finland,
but perhaps it was too general and it was better to leave it out,' Au declared. `In
any case, there is another article in the bill that protects the secrecy of the
confessional. It is a separate question whether such a church sacrament should
be protected by state law, but we have taken the view that the government has
made the proposal and parliament will make the decision.'

Despite the claims of many minority religious communities that some
Churches (especially the Lutherans, the Estonian Orthodox and the Catholics)
will be favoured in the bill, Au maintains that all religious groups will be
accorded equal treatment. `There is no article in the bill about state or national
Churches,' Au declares categorically. `According to the constitution there is no
state Church in Estonia and that is why no other law can provide for it.' Asked
about rumours that the Lutherans, Orthodox and Catholics were to be accorded
special recognition, Au responded: `The bill mentions no religious groups by
name. Our law does not differentiate between religious groups on the grounds
of size of membership or how long they have been active. There is a principle
that the government added to the draft, something on the lines of: "Religious
groups with whom the state has concluded a relevant agreement may be legal
persons of public law." This is the principle and it is for parliament to decide
whether to include it. The government has given the possibility for every
religious group to become a legal person of public law.' Au stresses that the bill
is `substantially different' from the equivalent Latvian and Lithuanian laws,
which favour established religious groups.

Au does admit that earlier drafts did accord some Churches favoured status. `In
one of the preliminary drafts there was such a principle based on the
confirmation of the status before 1940 [when the Lutheran and Orthodox
Churches in Estonia enjoyed recognition as state Churches]. But this was just
in the preliminary draft and it has now been omitted. It is not in the version to
be submitted to parliament. There is absolutely nothing in the draft on national
Churches.'

Estonia's religious groups are divided over whether a new law is needed. `Yes,
there should be a new law,' TIIU PIKKUR, press secretary of the Consistory of
the Evangelical Lutheran Church, told Keston in an interview in her office at
the Consistory in Tallinn on 3 January. The Lutherans are the largest single
religious group, with an estimated 200,000 active members out of a population
in Estonia of one and a half million people. EERIK JOKS, the executive
secretary of the Council of Churches and a Lutheran layman, agrees. `It is a
good idea to have a new law,' he told Keston. `The situation in post-Soviet
Estonia is complicated and the Churches are in a difficult position. They are
not accepted as organisations that are different and are currently treated as
ordinary NGOs.' Others are less convinced of the need for a whole new law.
OLAV PARNAMETS, the Superintendent of the Methodist Church, told
Keston: `The 1993 law is enough, maybe with just some amendments. Time
passes and with any law you usually discover something is lacking.' HEIGO
RITSBEK, Dean of the Estonian branch of the Charismatic Episcopal Church
(which has been refused membership of the Council of Churches), is less clear
about the need to change the law. `I am satisfied with the 1993 law. Everyone
is satisfied with the current law, except those groups that want to emphasise
their status.'

Various proposals adopted at various times during the drafting process have
aroused the ire of different groups. The proposal to grant the Lutherans and
Orthodox status as `national' Churches - the Catholics were later added after the
Estonian government and the Holy See signed an agreement `on the juridical
status of the Catholic Church in Estonia' on 23 December 1998 - was
welcomed by the Churches concerned, although the Catholics claim they did
not ask for such status. `The Lutheran Church wants this status of "national"
Church, together with the Orthodox,' Tiiu Pikkur declared. `Mostly this is
symbolic.'

However, this proposal aroused almost universal condemnation from other
religious groups, who are frequently both working with old drafts and worried
that parliament will add text to the draft sent to them. `Most Protestant
Churches were against this,' Ritsbek told Keston. `They fear there will be two
classes of religious group.' He points out that although the Lutheran Church is
the largest single group and played an important part in Estonian history which
no-one is attempting to contest, all the religious groups in the country
combined still represent a minority (a point Tiiu Pikkur conceded). `In Estonia
a maximum of fifteen or twenty per cent of the population belong to any church
at all,' Ritsbek declared. `The vast majority belong to no Church. The situation
before the war was completely different. Then the Lutherans and the Orthodox
had eighty per cent of the population.' ULO NIINEMAGI, a pastor of the
Oleviste Baptist church in Tallinn, was far more outspoken. `This new law
makes us outlaws,' he told Keston. `If the Lutherans alone are given the status
of state Church we will lose fruitful ministries in prisons and hospitals and they
will have priority in the media. Only the state Church will be able to marry and
bury people officially.' (At present Estonia does not recognise religious
ceremonies.) Niinemagi complains the situation is already getting worse for the
Baptists. Even Metropolitan STEPHANOS, the head of the Estonian
Autocephalous Orthodox Church (EAOC), was sceptical about restoring the
prewar position when the Lutherans and Orthodox were recognised as state
Churches and pointed to the dangers. `The Lutherans have spoken of installing
a Swedish or Danish model of state recognition. I told them this was an
anachronism. Europe is moving towards a separation of Church and state. It is
very dangerous for a Church to be linked to a state, especcially in a place like
Estonia where the Church was for too long an instrument of the state.' Ritsbek
too pointed out that Sweden and Britain were moving away from established
religions.

Others were not too concerned if any groups had special status provided the
activities of their own group were not restricted. KAEDO SOOBIK, vice-
president of a 30-strong Tibetan Buddhist community, told Keston: `If they
don't tell us how to deal with our own religious life then it's OK. But if they
make obstacles for our religious life then there will be some difficulty.'

Some religious leaders have complained of the idea of giving some religious
groups the status of `public bodies', while others would be eligible to become
only `private bodies'. `The Catholic Church is in favour of granting religious
groups the status of "public body",' PHILIPPE JOURDAN, vicar-general of the
Apostolic Administration of Estonia, told Keston in an interview at the
Apostolic Nunciature in Tallinn on 6 January. `But we say that everything
should be done to avoid different status for different groups. But in itself the
right to have public status is not a problem for us. Some religious groups
though are so small here that I don't imagine they'll get public status.' But
Ritsbek questioned the very concept of `public bodies'. `The Ministry of Justice
said you can't simply have legal entities, you must have either public or private
legal entities. But what's the difference? We don't know yet.' One member of
the government's working group, the Baptist RUUDI LEINUS, told Keston: `If
the part about "public bodies" is excluded from the text we will be happy as it
will mean all religious groups will be equal.'

Some religious groups complain that the categories of religious group spelled
out in a number of the drafts do not accord with church canons, a complaint
heard from Lutherans, the Orthodox and the Catholics. GUSTAV PIIR, pastor
of the Lutheran Holy Spirit Church in Tallinn and the city's dean, told Keston
in an interview in his church on 5 January that the draft bill does not respect the
church's internal structure, recognising only a church headquarters and
individual parishes without taking account of deaneries. Father Jourdan for the
Catholics was also unhappy. `'The last draft of the law contained inadequate
ecclesiastical categories. The canonical structure of the Catholic Church is
more complex than the four categories the draft text contains. It would be
difficult with such categories to respond to the needs of the Church.'
Metropolitan Stephanos also pointed to the differences between the state's rules
and the internal canons of the Orthodox Church.

But the main complaint has been the way the Interior Ministry has gone about
preparing the draft text. The Interior Ministry's working group was made up of
12 representatives, according to Ilmo Au, drawn from the Interior Ministry, the
Justice Ministry, the Education Ministry, parliament, the Law Department at
Tartu University, the Lutheran Church, the EAOC, the Baptists, the Methodists
and the Pentecostals. `Only the working group was able to read the text of the
drafts,' Au told Keston, although he then added: `As far as I know the
documents were not confidential.' On further questioning he explained that it
was up to each member of the working group who they shared copies of the
draft texts with. Could working group members publish the draft texts they had
access to? `It is up to each individual member.' What if, say, the Jehovah's
Witnesses (who are registered in Estonia) had rung up his office and asked for
a copy of the latest draft text? `It does not matter which group a person is from
if they are not in the working group. I would not hand it over, as the texts were
working versions. They would see the text on publication when it went to be
considered in parliament.' Au explained that publishing working drafts that still
need to be amended `causes confusion'. Pressed further he conceded that the
Lutherans were able to have input into the drafting process through their
membership in the working group while the Jehovah's Witnesses were not.

It is significant that all the Churches represented on the working group are
members of the Council of Churches, although the exact status of the EAOC in
the Council is unclear. Other member Churches of the Council - such as the
Roman Catholic Church - have been able to obtain copies of the draft texts
from those members who were represented or even from the Ministry of the
Interior. Father Jourdan confirmed this to Keston.

Even the member Churches of the Council of Churches only just managed to
produce a common response to the draft bill. Various representatives on the
Council speak of `heated debates' and `open disagreement' on the draft texts.
`All Churches in the Council agree that the law must give de jure and de facto
equality to all Churches which are members of the Council,' general secretary
Joks told Keston, choosing his words with care. Asked whether the member
Churches believed this equality should be extended to religious groups outside
the Council he responded: `I cannot speak about whether this should be
extended to all non-Council religious groups. This has not been discussed.'

The effective exclusion of all religious communities outside the Council of
Churches from the drafting process has exacerbated inter-religious tensions and
suspicions that certain Churches were pushing for special status. The restriction
of working group members to Churches within the Council also excluded all
non-Christian groups, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Muslims, the
Bahais and the Jews, all of which are registered as religious communities in
Estonia. Kaedo Soobik of the Buddhists told Keston in Tallinn that they had
spoken to Ilmo Au late in 1999 about the proposed new law and that Au had
told them they did not need to worry. `He didn't explain why and he didn't ask
our opinion. We would like to give our opinion on the draft but we don't yet
have a clear picture of the law.' The Russian Orthodox Church - the second
biggest religious group in Estonia and one which does not have state
registration - has had almost no information on the proposed law. When Keston
sought the views of the Church on the bill from Father LEONTI MOROZKIN,
press spokesman for Archbishop KORNILI, the head of the Russian Orthodox
Church in Estonia, he was commenting on a draft of 30 June 1998, which has
long been superseded by other drafts. Metropolitan Stephanos of the EAOC
likewise complained that he has not been given the draft texts of the bill.

The exclusion of many groups from the drafting process for the religion bill is
paralleled by the way the state hands money over to the Council of Churches to
distribute among its members as it sees fit, while it provides no support to
religious groups outside the Council (although the Council has given some of
its money to the Old Believers to support their libraries). Ilmo Au explains that
money is provided to the Council from the state budget - some 1.5 million
kroons [$100,000] in 2000 - to `support their activities'. `This is the will of
parliament and this is how it has been since the early 1990s.' Asked whether
religious groups outside the Council of Churches receive state funding, Au
replied: `They can get money from the state if they have a justified project.'
Asked if the Muslims, say, could receive money, he replied: `They could
apply.'

Many of Estonia's religious communities remain unconvinced that all are equal.
Asked generally about fears that some religious communities have or could be
relegated to second class status, Ilmo Au told Keston categorically: `It is not
possible according to our constitution to make such a difference.' However, he
then added that given the size of the Lutheran Church compared to other
religious communities the government has enacted a special agreement with it.
`The government first issued an order in 1995, which was renewed early in
1999, to form a working group with the Lutheran Church to regulate relations
between the Lutheran Church and the state. The 15-member joint committee,
chaired by the Minister of the Interior and the Lutheran Archbishop JAAN
KIIVIT, has the right to make proposals to the government to make
amendments to the Law on Churches and Congregations and other laws.' The
joint committee, which also has sub-committees under it, has already made
proposals to amend the law on education and in the area of heritage protection
and social welfare.

Pressed on whether that did not give the Lutheran Church an unfair advantage
in presenting its concerns to the government, Au responded: `These committees
give absolutely no privileges or advantages to that Church. Rather, they are
bodies supporting the state, as a lot of attention has been paid to protection of
sacred buildings and the majority of these with historical value belong to the
Lutheran and Orthodox Churches. Here the state is really grateful when the
Church reminds it of the valuable buildings we have.' Au added that although
the Lutherans are the only community to have such a joint committee at
present, the EAOC had submitted such an application at the end of 1999.
`Preparations are under way to find members.' What if other groups such as the
Baptists or Methodists submitted a similar application for their own joint
committees? `They haven't done so up till now. If they do then the government
will make a decision.'

Until the draft text is published it is impossible to know exactly what it
contains. But even then the process of drawing up what has turned out to be a
highly controversial piece of legislation will not have ended. `We don't know
what parliament will add to the text,' says Heigo Ritsbek. `Many parliamentary
deputies are sympathetic to the Lutherans, and there is one deacon in
parliament, JAAN LEPPIK of the Pro Patria party.' Also among the
parliamentary deputies is VOOTELE HANSEN, a Lutheran layman who is
vice-president of the General Synod and chairman of the Lutheran Churcch's
law commission. The prim minister MART LAAR is a member of Gustav
Piir's Lutheran parish in Tallin. Some fear that the Lutheran Church's influence
over the proposed new law has not ceased with the ending of the drafting
period. (END)

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(c) Keston Institute 2000