Note N°02

octobre 2017

Religion, Politics and Society in Estonia

Irina Paert

In her comments to the Manchester attacks on 23 May 2017, Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid declared: 

“Our Estonia is a secular state and there is a room for everyone here. As we know we have not thus far encountered such problems that individuals with different religions are unable to communicate with one another. Rather we have contrasting examples of various communities of faith.”

Earlier Kaljulaid expressed her position towards the church very clearly when she declined to participate to the traditional Christmas service in the Lutheran church. She motivated her stand by her lack of personal faith and her unfamiliarity regarding Christmas celebrations at church. So, the first woman president broke the tradition of previous presidents of Estonia who had customarily gone to the Lutheran church for national feast days and Christmas. Kaljulaid’s emphasis on freedom of conscience as her guiding principle finds a controversial response. More than half of the people (61%) express a wish that the president should participate in Christmas church service. Nevertheless, the position of Kaljulaid is based not only on her personal secular worldviews and upbringing, but also on the Estonian constitution which guarantees freedom of belief and non-belief. Kaljulaid abides by the principles of the secular state that respects the church as a partner but does not distinguish between the churches by favoring the Lutheran church [see Annexe 3]. 

There is a tendency to present Estonia as a future-oriented, technology-minded, innovative, dynamic, tolerant and liberal country. The belief that Estonia’s secular character is an advantage is rather wide-spread. In 2008 young people who worked for the branding of Estonia used the motto from John Lennon’s song Imagine: “Imagine there is no heaven”. 

The position of Kaljulaid can be traced to the Estonian policy on religion adopted in the 1990s, which was characterized by a neo-liberal approach to the market. Religious groups could compete in the religious market without state interference. The state adopted the Churches and Congregations Act in 2002. From this year, religious congregations could register through local courts, not with the Ministry of Interior. 

As scholars point out, declared aims are not often supported with practice. Statements about the state’s commitment to the principles of equal treatment of all confessions have been challenged. Non-Christian groups often feel that the state privileges Christian groups. The non-established Christian groups complain that the state informally agrees with the claims of the Lutheran church to the status of national church. The delay in registration of the Orthodox church of the Moscow Patriarchate raised much criticism about the unequal treatment of the Russian-speaking members of the Orthodox church. 

The state’s cooperation with the bodies such as the Estonian Council of Churches (Eesti Kiriku Nõukogu, EKN established in 1989) and the Lutheran Church have several dimensions. The Estonian state supports the activities of EKN financially and politically. The program of protection of churches as objects of heritage was established in 2004. In 2008 it was supplemented with a similar program for protecting the sacred places of nature, which was initiated by the representatives of nativist religious revival groups (Taarausk, Maausk).

This paper focuses on the Estonian state’s relationship with religion, which results of several factors. This paper will deal with the three main areas that inform the Estonian specific relationship with religion: the Orthodox church issue, the social aspects of religion (number of believers, ethnic and gender factors), and the relationships between religion and the Estonian society. 

I. Historical background

The Estonian religious situation requires some historical background. Since Estonia embraced Reformation in the 16th century, the Lutheran church has become dominant in the Baltic provinces, including the territory of contemporary Estonia. Baltic Germans, who colonized the land in the Baltic area as part of the 13th century conquest, helped disseminating Lutheranism. Whilst the Baltic provinces were conquered by Peter I in 1710, the Lutheran church retained its ecclesiastical autonomy within the Russian Empire. Objectively, the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages and the emphasis on the word of God led to the rise of the literacy rate among Estonian peasants (the Baltic provinces had the highest literacy rate compared to the other peoples of the Russian Empire). However, the Lutheran church were regarded as the church of the German landlords who controlled the appointment of priests. Spiritual movements within the Estonian society, such as Herrnhuterism or Bretheren movement in the late 18th and the first half of the 19th century, were banned by the established church. However, when 100,000 Estonian and Latvian peasants appealed to the Russian authorities with the request to convert to Orthodoxy in the 1840s, the Lutheran church could not do much to prevent it. The confessional and social crises caused by the conversion movement continued to influence politics and society in the Baltic region until 1918, when Estonia became independent. Since several members of the Estonian government, including the president Konstantin Päts (1938-1940) are Orthodox by faith, the Orthodox church was accepted as the second official religion. Despite this status, the cultural and political power of the Orthodox church remains weak.

During the period of the Estonian Republic (1920-1940), Orthodox Estonians received the status of an autonomous Orthodox church. This status was granted by Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow. In 1923 they turned to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople with the request to give them autocephaly, that is to say ecclesiastical self-government. Autocephaly was not granted. Yet, the Estonians officially joined the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, severing their canonical relations with the Russian church. This decision affected the Russian parishes in Estonia and caused disobedience from the Pskov-Petserskii monastery. During spring 1940, when the Soviet power briefly occupied the Baltic states, Bishop Alexander (Paulus) was called to Moscow where he pledged allegiance to the Russian Church. However, when Estonia was occupied by the Nazi army in Summer 1941, Bishop Alexander broke his pledge to the Patriarch of Moscow, motivating this by the forced character of his pledge in 1940. During the war, allegiances of the Orthodox believers in Estonia were divided: the Russian parishes were ruled by Bishop Sergii Voskresenskii of the Russian church, while the Estonian ones were ruled by Bishop Alexander. At the end of the war in 1945, Bishop Alexander along with 40 priests emigrated from Estonia to Sweden where the Synod of the Estonian Orthodox church abroad was established. The Orthodox church in Soviet Estonia became a diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church. During the Soviet period in Estonia, the Orthodox church included both Estonian and Russian parishes, as well as an Estonian-speaking clergy. Yet, migration of the Russian-speaking people to Estonia, between the late 1940s and the 1980s, shifted the ethnic composition in the Orthodox church. In 1934 Russian-speakers in Estonia were 8.2% of population, but in 1989 this number increased to 30.3%. As a result, today Russian-speaking Orthodox outnumber Estonian-speaking Orthodox by 7 to 1 (see Annexe 1c). The demographic situation and the Russian cultural orientation led to the declining use of Estonian language in liturgy and to the silencing of the resentment of the ethnic Estonian clergy. 


II. Orthodox churches’ problem as a challenge and as an opportunity 

The self-presentation of the Estonian state as secular one and the rhetoric of equal treatment of all faith groups represent an ideal rather than a fact. Between the 1990s and 2002, the crisis of the Orthodox churches challenged both the neoliberal policy of the state and the latter’s declaration of neutrality. 

In the wake of the Estonian independence movement in 1991-92, when Estonian nationalist feelings were on the rise, a group of eight Estonian-speaking priests began the process of separation from the Russian Orthodox Church, that led to the formation of the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church (EAOC, or EAÕK in Estonian). This action, which was fuelled by the resentments of the ethnic Estonian clergy and by the ambitions of one of the leaders, priest Simeon (Kruzhkov), to be elected as a bishop was framed as a mixture of ethnic, political and canonical arguments and sentiments. In 1993, the Ministry of Interior registered the EOAC. Originally the EOAC was an organization created by 8 priests and 33 lay people, who registered as a foundation working for the restoration of the Estonian Church based on the status implemented before 1940. Two days after the registration of the EOAC, the group met Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople in Stockholm. In 1990 Metropolitan Kornilii (Viacheslav Jakobs) was elected Metropolitan (ruling bishop) of Tallinn diocese to replace Metropolitan Aleksii, who had become Patriarch of Russia. Patriarch Aleksii II granted the status of autonomy to the Orthodox church in Estonia on 29 April 1993, during the council of the Orthodox church at Pjuhtitsa convent. Metropolitan Kornilii began preparation for registration of the Estonian church, under the same title of EAOC, unaware that another group had already registered their organization under the same name. This was the reason why the state refused to register the Orthodox church led by Kornilii under the same name. Supported by Patriarch Aleksii II among others, the Metropolitan Kornilii, vainly complained about this state of affairs in 1991-1996. Both sides of the conflict received support from outside Estonia: Kornilii was supported by Bishop Kirill of Smolensk (now patriarch of Russia) and Fr. Elisey (now Metropolitan Elisey of Sourozh, based in London), while the Estonian priests were backed by the representatives of the Finnish Orthodox church, Archbishop John of Karelia and All Finland and Fr. Heikki Huttunen. 

In the eyes of the Estonian state, the Orthodox church placed under the Moscow Patriarchate was not a legitimate subject of legal rights because it was granted this status during the “Soviet occupation regime”. The Estonian church thus refused to recognize the rights of the Moscow Patriarchate as the successor of the Orthodox church that existed in Estonia before the Second World War. The reference to history was used in the statement of 8 priests on 31 December 1992, who were supported by the Synod of the Estonian Orthodox Church Abroad, an organization which was created by the refugee Orthodox priests after 1945 in Stockholm. In this statement, they criticized bishop Kornilii for failing to bring together all different ethnic groups belonging to Orthodoxy. They also considered that Estonian Orthodox were merely puppets in the hands of the Moscow Patriarchate, and that they had been deprived of democratic elections to choose an independent church head. The split within the church and the refusal of the government to register the church that was under the Moscow patriarchate aggravated the relationship between Estonia and Russia. Patriarch Aleksii II and Russia’s politicians defended the Russian Orthodox church: they declared the standstill a violation of human rights. Representatives of the Russian church complained before OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe], Human Rights organizations and the European Commission. On 9 December 1995 and 16 March 1996, Metropolitan Kornilii organized two massive demonstrations to defend the church whose he was the head. Demonstrations gathered 6,000 to 20,000 people. They started from the Bishop’s chancellery in Pikk street (Tallinn), crossed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and then reached the Alexander Nevskii Cathedral, opposite the Estonian Parliament (see Appendix 2). These were the biggest popular demonstrations in independent Estonia since 1992.They brought together alla Russians of Estonia who had associated themselves with the church. 

The settlement of the conflict began after the second procession in 1996. On 22 April 1996, the representatives of Moscow and Constantinople patriarchates met in Zurich, where it was decided that Orthodox congregations could choose which canonical jurisdiction they wanted to belong to. Nevertheless, this agreement waged complications for the Estonian-Russian mixed congregations, which led to several conflicts. Both sides accused each other of violating the agreement. In 1996, the communication between the two churches was disrupted during several months.

Despite the wishes of the Estonians, they could not have an ethnic Estonian as the head of the church. The head of the Estonian church was Finnish metropolitan Johanness, while the vicar bishop was the local Simeon Kruzhkov. In 1998, the Constantinople patriarch appointed Bishop Stephanos (Charalambides), of Cypriot ancestry who was living in France, to become the Metropolitan of Estonia. 

Following the exchange of angry letters, numerous talks, meetings, court cases and complaints, the state finally granted the Russian church legal status in 2002, under the name of “Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate” (hereafter MPEOC). Although the EOAC was the formal owner of the church properties built before 1945, the state gave the Russian Orthodox parishes the right to use 18 church buildings for a time-period of 50 years. The EOAC received a compensation of 35,5 million Estonian crowns for maintaining and reconstructing the existing church buildings. This gesture was informally perceived as a compensation for the loss of the buildings that had been captured and used by the Russian church. The question of church property continues to be negotiated between the representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Estonian authorities. The debate continues until today. 

While it is important to focus on the conflict, it is also necessary to understand the methods of the conflict regulation. Apart from the dramatic disagreements in three parishes over chosing which church to belong to, the debate over public processions in Tallinn and the journalistic polemics, the conflict between the churches, or between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Estonian state, has not led to violence. It would also be impossible to accuse the MPEOC of disloyalty. Metropolitan Kornilii continued to stress the fact that he, himself, was rooted in Estonia and that Orthodox Russians were living in Estonia before the Soviet occupation. Therefore, it was wrong to accuse his church of being the church of the Soviet colonizers (okkupanty). One of the frequent arguments made by Kornilii was that the inflexible and biased policy of the Estonian state would promote ghettoization of the Russian Orthodox in the country. It is a chicken and egg problem to identify whether the Russian church has started to be more reliant on Moscow because of the crisis; or whether the crisis was caused by such reliance. However, it is a fact that the Orthodox church has become a part of the political campaign of the Estonian Centre Party (Keskerakond), which relies heavily on the Russian-speaking voters and dominates in the city of Tallinn.  

The saga of the two Orthodox churches under Moscow and Constantinople jurisdictions in order to find an institutional and legal status in independent Estonia had an impact on the identity of both communities. The identity of the church under Constantinople has already been described by anthropologists who focused on the specific local identity of Estonian Orthodoxy as well as on spiritual and cultural characteristics. It is important to notice that membership within the EAOK and the MPEOK grows by inclusion of converts, rather than “cradle” Orthodox. In fact, many of these newcomers joined the churches between the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, when both churches had drifted apart and had formed their own specific liturgical and pastoral styles. In the Estonian church (Constantinople) scholars noticed signs of the “de-territorialized Orthodoxy”, which did not just follow the local Orthodox tradition, but creatively mixed and matched the Estonian, the modern Greek and the Western Orthodox styles. Parishes of the two churches are ethnically mixed -- each of them has a respective minority, either Russian- or Estonian-speaking. Thus, they introduce other languages in the liturgy and in the publishing activities. There is an Orthodox school in Tallinn which delivers classes in Estonian but one of its founders was the parish of MPEOC. Both groups have similar distribution of people in terms of age and gender. However, Estonian-speaking Orthodox born between 1961 and 1980 slightly outnumber those born between 1946-1960 in the Russian church. 

Lasnamäe Church: the Ongoing Politicization of Religious Issue

Despite the distribution of the church buildings between Russian and Estonian congregations, the MPEOC continues to experience shortage of space. In the last 10-15 years the MPEOC began building new churches, notably in Narva and Prichud’e dioceses (North-East Estonia). These two locations record the highest number of Russian-speaking people. Seven out of thirteen churches in Narva diocese have been built after 1993 in the areas of Narva, Jõgeva, Narva-Jõesuu, primarily through the efforts of Bishop Lasarus (Gudkov, born in 1969) who was appointed bishop in 2009. In contrast, only four new churches were built in Paldiski, Maardu, Türi, and Lasnamäe, in the Tallinn diocese. 

The construction of the new Orthodox church in Lasnamäe was at the epicenter of media attention and political scandals. The Lasnamäe district of Tallinn, where one third of Tallinners lives, is mostly populated by Russian-speaking people (70%). Built in the late 1970s, Lasnamäe represents the typical Soviet era district of multi-storied apartment blocks. Until 2006, there was no church in the area. Russian-speaking Orthodox living in Lasnamäe attended religious services the churches located in the centre of Tallinn (mainly the Cathedral of Alexander Nevskii, St Nicholas church in the Old Town) and in the suburbs (St Nicholas church in Sitse and St John the Baptist church in Nõmme). The average distance between home and church was thus 20 to 30 kilometers. 

The construction of the Orthodox church in Lasnamäe started in 2006. The church was dedicated to the popular icon “Mother of God who is quick to hear”, that originated from Mount Athos. The construction costed about 3.5€ millions. Part of the funds came from fundraising (donations collected through phone calls and through collections in parish communities), but the largest bulk of funds came from the Foundation of Saint-Andrew which belongs to Vladimir Yakunin, the Russian Railway magnate. 

According to the Estonian security police (KaPo), on 9 February 2010, Yakunin was approached by Edgar Savisaar, mayor of Tallinn and head of the Centre Party in Estonia, who solicited the funding of 1.5 million for the church in Lasnamäe. The security police also alleged that the actual aim of the Centre Party was to receive funding for their political activities in exchange of lobbying for the Russian interests in Estonia. These allegations led to a political crisis within the ruling coalition accompanied by a media campaign against Savisaar. In the public sphere, the story highlightened the connexion between Russian Orthodoxy and politics. Despite this scandal, the church was accomplished in the beginning of 2013 and consecrated by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in June the same year. The church symbolizes the presence of Russian Orthodoxy in the largest city of Estonia: it is built in an old Russian style reminding the architecture of old Russian churches. The church can welcome 1,000 people although a mere of 300 believers attend the Sunday’s service on average. The premises also offer a room for the Sunday’s school as well as conference facilities.  

While the Lutheran church have never experienced a schism, it is losing much of the social trust that it gained in the 1990s. A possible reason for this state of affair is the political alignment of the EELK with the political establishment. Lutheran church leaders think that the Lutheran faith must provide ‘the symbols and beliefs for the solidarity of Estonian culture, it unites Estonia culturally with the Western civilization, and provides a resource around which Estonians can rally for nationalist causes”. The church asks for a special status within the religious plurality of the Estonian society. Demand is based on the claim that the Lutheran church has the unique responsibility of being the spiritual guide of the nation. According to political scientists, this position of the EELK brings the church closer to the neoliberal right, but alienates other groups within society such as the social democrats and the Christian protestants. EELK is therefore criticized for failing to engage with social issues, for legitimizing neoliberalism and for seeking to enhance its own narrow interests.


III. Estonian secularism in social surveys 

The Orthodox church crisis and the Lutheran church’s political compromises turn many people away from the church. Estonian secularism can therefore be described as a lack of trust in institutionalized church from the society. The evidence of this can be found in several national and international social surveys that confirm the perception of the Estonian society as a secular one. It is important therefore to discuss the data collected through these surveys. In Estonia, both population censuses in 2000 and 2011 included questions on religious belief. It worth noting this since the question on religion was not asked in the censuses made during the Soviet time and during the 1990s. Since 1995 the Estonian Council of Churches (EKN) carries out its own survey. Entitled “On life, faith and religious life”, it takes place every five years. In addition, there are international WVS/EVS surveys and, finally, Eurobarometer surveys. In May 2017 the Pew Research Centre published a report untitled “Religious belief and national belonging in Central and Eastern Europe” which contained analysis of the data collected in Estonia, among other 18 countries. Most surveys agree that Estonia is among the countries with the lowest number of believers, in Europe and worldwide. But there is a discrepancy in numbers. For example, Eurobarometer in 2005 found that there is a very low percentage of believers in personal God (16%), in a Gallup poll dated from 2010, 16% of the people stressed that religion is important in their lives. According to the 2011 Estonian Census, only 29,2% people above 15 said that they believe in God. This data differs from the Pew Research Forum (PRF) which suggest that 44% of Estonians believe in God ( Yet, even if we take the highest figure provided by PRF, Estonia is still one of the least religious countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Among 18 countries in Eastern and Central Europe, Estonia was second to Czech Republic which had the lowest number of believers (29%).

Both Estonia and the Czech Republic have a large proportion of people who defined their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular”. Thus, the data of PRF confirm the previous statements about Estonia’s difference from its Russians, Latvians and Lithuanians neighbors (71% of Latvians and 76% of Lithuanians replied positively to the question on belief in God). However, rather than taking this data for granted, we need to consider additional characteristics: ethno-confessional, gender, institutional/non-institutional belief and belief/practice factor. 


Ethno-confessionnal factors

First, the problem of religious affiliation in Estonia cannot be assessed without considering the ethno-confessional factors. While Estonian-speakers represent 68.7% of population, only 16% of them identify themselves with the Lutheran faith. Among the Russian-speakers, who represent 24.8% of the population, 47% identify themselves with Orthodoxy. It is important to keep in mind that even if this is almost three times higher a proportion than among the Estonian-speakers, the Orthodox affiliation of Russians in Estonia should not be exaggerated. Compared to the data from other Orthodox countries, where identification with the Orthodox church is around 70%, Russians living in Estonia have a relatively low engagement with religion. The difference between Estonian and Russian speakers surfaces through value surveys (EVS, EUU). These various value surveys (EVS, EUU) carried out by Saar Poll, have been analyzed through the means of SPSS, had produced five typological groups which formed typical social groups in accordance with their lifestyle and values. We only discuss here three groups, among which the (positive or negative) attitude toward religion is the most clearly expressed. Two groups highly valued faith in their life. The group number I “religiously committed” (6,4%) evaluates faith most highly while work, politics and leisure are not among very highly valued interests. Large number of women (66%) and non-Estonians (50%, Russian-speaking 48%), and people aged of 50 and more belong to this group. Most of them live in the North and in the South parts of Estonia. 

Another group which values faith relatively high, number V “modern, family-oriented” (16,2%), represent an urban group, to which almost half of the people in their 30-49 years of age (but also 22% people at the age of retirement) belong. Percentage of men and women with higher education is relatively high. They value family and marriage; the number of children is higher than average. Non-Estonians make about 40% of this group. Even though religion is not on the highest place in the hierarchy of values, 92% of people within this group regard faith as very important. Life-history interviews carried in 2007-10 with several Russian-speaking people who belong to the above two groups, support this pattern. Nowadays, people who make a large and dyanmic share of the Orthodox congregations in Estonia were born in Soviet Estonia in atheist families. They came to faith at the age of 20-30 during the 1990s. Even though this group includes unmarried women, there are also families with children who demonstrate a very strong association between religion, morality and family values. The large part of people whose I took interview had higher education; their families had more than one child. Their church attendance was higher than average (at least once a week); they valued travel, work, nature and friendship. It is possible that the differences between Estonians and Russians within this group are insignificant, yet there is little communication between them as they socialize primarily within their confessional and linguistic communities. In contrast, the group II does not consider religion as an important matter and can be called “Estonian patriots”. About 44,5% of all individual surveyed belong to this group. In contrast to group V, these are mainly Estonian speakers and Estonian citizens. They value most highly Estonian nation’s present and future, nature and leisure. Mostly these are one-child families, which has been a typical demographic pattern for Estonia since the late Soviet period.


Gender and non-institutional belief

Secondly, these surveys show that women identify themselves as believers more than men. According to PRF, 53% of women are inclined to believe in God, the figure for men falls to 34%. The number of women in Estonian surveys is also higher. The same is true about affiliated believers: there are more women than men in the congregations. The qualitative Estonian surveys also emphasizes this trend. Thirdly, people identifying themselves with a specific religion do not necessarily associate their personal beliefs with a religious institution. Many people claim that they have their own faith. Sociologists of religion who analyzed the surveys commissioned by EKN as well as the population censuses, pointed out that a substantial number of people in Estonia prefer to depict themselves as spiritual. They believe in supernatural forces but they deny being associated with Christianity or any specific religion. Within the broad group defined as the non-Christian sphere (about 2/3 of population), the number or self-confessed atheists or agnostics is rather low. 

Beliefs in spirit or life force among Estonians is higher that belief in personal God. Basis of this belief is uncertain. People believe that meditation can help their self-development. The phenomenon of believing in various forms of spiritual force is interpreted as a sign of new spirituality, particularly the New Age, or remaining presence of folk beliefs and practices, for example shamanism which had enjoyed revival in post-Soviet era in Finno-Ugric cultures.  It is often more difficult to survey religion outside institutionalized framework and popular religion. In Estonia, scholars pay attention to the problem of distinguishing between beliefs and belonging. Surveys demonstrate that while the number of affiliated believers is low, the number of people who participate in various “new spiritual practices” is on the rise. In 2011, 17% of Estonians took part in some forms of spiritual practices, while 33% expressed their wish to do so in the future. Some of the new spiritual practices, including meditation, yoga, transformation of aura, PSYCH-K could be qualified as New Age, although many practitioners do not use this term. Church attendance is generally low among people who identify themselves with either Orthodox or Lutheran church: among 19% of Estonians who identify with religion, less than 3% attend the church each week. Attitudes towards church are regularly surveyed by polls commissioned by the Estonian Council of Churches. It is quite striking that much people consider the role of the church in a society is to help the poor (66% in 2015) and people with problems (62%). Only 13% of people believe that church should be involved in politics. This can be interpreted as a critique of the church for failing to engage with the problem of poverty and the gap between the rich and the poor. 

IV.The rise of Christian schools 

Despite the lack of enthusiasm for institutionalized religion in Estonia, the rise of Christian schools in recent years has been a surprising development for many observers. While the first Christian schools in Estonia were established in the early 1990s, a wave of new schools took place in 2012/2013. Six new Christian schools opened in Tallinn, Tartu and Kohila. Altogether there are nine schools in Estonia that associate themselves with the Roman Catholic (Tallinn, Tartu), Orthodox (Tallinn, Narva) and Lutheran churches (Tallinn, Tartu). The number of pupils in these schools is around 2,500. Projections suggest it will reach around 9,000 students in the next ten years. Although these schools are associated with specific churches, they welcome children from other confessional backgrounds. As a rule, most parents have a “broad” ethnic link and no association with a specific church. According to one study, about half of the parents belong to a specific congregation, while one third have one or another religious affiliation, and about 10% of parents are irreligious. In our view, this is a very optimistic estimate. Based on personal knowledge of the activity of two Christian schools, between 30% and 50% of parents have no affiliation with any religion but accept the school values. Since Christian schools have less populated classes, a greater emphasis on moral education, the teaching of additional subjects, committed teachers and a friendly atmosphere, the parents’ demand of admission is rather high, regardless of the emphasis on Christian values. This situation is not specific to Estonia: in the UK for instance, schools that belong to the Church of England or Roman-Catholic church traditionally experience a high demand.

The rise of the Christian schools was partly spontaneous, partly encouraged by certain contemporary trends within society: the introduction of ethical values and respect for cultural diversity in main strategic documents on education, a favorable legislation and financial conditions (private schools receive financing per pupil from the state on the same basis as the municipal schools) and popular demand for schools that have smaller classes. Although these schools belong to different Christian denominations, there are some similarities: separate classes for boys and girls, emphasis on language teaching (English, Russian, German), participation in church services and prayers during the school day. Schools can work together but they generally are quite independent from each other. Schools are active in public life, organizing conferences, charity concerts, festivals. It is a little paradoxical that in a secular society like Estonia the attitude towards Christian schools is generally quite positive. Kersti Nigeson, the director of the Old Town Educational Guild, a school where most teachers belong to Roman Catholic church, considers that people trust Christian schools more than churches. Nigeson, who has 30 years of experience at the pioneering school with Christian identity, perceives her mission to promote Christianity through education. 

V.Religion and civil society

Relationship between religious actors and the state are regulated by law. In the case of Estonia law proceeds from three sources: 

  • The national law (including Constitution, the Non-profit Associations Act, the Churches and Congregations Act, hereafter CCA), 
  • The international law
  • The interpretation of basic freedoms and rights by courts, including the European Court of Human Rights and European Court of Justice.

Among these sources, the national body of law, such as the Constitution, prevails over the international law. Even though the Estonian law emphatically pronounces its commitment to the individual’s freedom of conscience and exercise of religion in private and public (article 40 of the Estonian constitution of 1992), there are limitations to the extent in which these statements can be fulfilled. Much depends on the definitions used in the law. For instance, the Estonian state distinguishes five types of religious organizations: churches, congregations, associations of congregations, monasteries and religious societies. While the first four categories are governed by the CCA law, activities of religious societies are regulated by the Non-Profit Associations Act. The latter is more restrictive: religious societies enjoy a more restricted autonomy in the management of internal affairs than religious organizations. Religious societies are also subject to taxation on land and property. Experts pointed out that the CCA employs a Christian terminology, such as kirik (church) and kogudus (congregation), that is not applicable to non-Christian organizations. In addition, the law sets limitations in the case of religious organization being associated with national minorities in Estonia, who might seek to organize their cultural autonomy centered on the religious community. According to the Estonian law (Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities) autonomy can only be granted to the citizens of Estonia. This disposition specifically affects the Russian-speaking fellows living in Estonia who either are non-citizens (21,1%) or citizens of Russia (24,3%). Cultural autonomy includes the right to organize education in the mother tongue and the right to practice and preserve a distinctive religion. 

Religion-related legal issues that have arisen so far broadly fall into six categories: 

  • Collective expression of freedom of religion and belief (Orthodox churches, land reform and restauration of property), 
  • Freedom to join religious organizations, 
  • Right to refuse a blood transfusion, 
  • Conscientious objection, 
  • Access to food prepared according to religious doctrines, and 
  • Religious education. 


Apart from the above-mentioned legal issue concerning the registration of the Orthodox church of Moscow patriarchate, other legal issues involving religion are more specific. For instance, in 2000 a child died because his parents refused blood transfusion on religious grounds. Doctors assumed they could not go against the will of the parents and did not save the child. This case triggered the Patients’ Rights Act which states that no one can hinder indispensable medical aid to other persons on religious grounds.

The case of religious education has a long history. Estonia was one of the first countries in Europe to ban religious education (RE) from the school curricula in 1919. The country later introduced the non-confessional RE. Under the Soviet regime, RE was impossible and in the 1990s attempts were made to introduce RE at schools. Such efforts were met with resistance by cultural elites. In public schools, religious education can only be taught as a non-confessional subject, and one the condition that at least 15 students apply for it. Currently, 6% of the public schools offer RE, mainly at the elementary level. The Council of Churches (EKN) tries to lobby for mandatory religious education in Estonian public schools. They signed a document entitled “A protocol of common concerns” jointly with the government on the 17th of October 2002. The protocol outlines the main issues (religious education, property) upon which churches expect the government to support them. In private Christian schools, spiritual practices (prayer, church attendance) and teaching of religion are not regulated by the state if they do not go against the law, but are being implemented on the decision of school boards. However, the schools’ curricula need to be approved by educational authorities. Agreement upon the content of religious education and the level it should be taught was not reached between the Estonian state and the EKN. Religious studies experts argue that it is only acceptable to teach religion in non-confessional form, at both elementary and upper levels, while the Christian schools and EKN believe that education should be confessional and students should be educated in their specific religious tradition. 

The recent growth of conservative moral values affected Estonia to some degree. Joining the EU went with the implementation of European regulations guided by human rights concerns. For Estonia, the most controversial regulation was the law on civil unions which the Estonian parliament adopted on 9 October 2014. By not clearly stating the gender of the persons entering the civil union the law provides legal grounds for recognition of same-sex unions. Adoption of the law raised objections from many conservative politicians as well as religious organizations and individuals. The Estonian Council of Churches issued a petition against the law, that was supported by most Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Lutheran leaders. Non-profit organizations such as Perekonna ja traditsiooni kaitseks SA (The Foundation for the Defense of Family and Tradition), directed by a Roman Catholic layman and activist (Varro Vooglaid), organized collective petitions (more than 35,000 protest letters were sent to the parliament against the Civil Partnership Act which legalizes homosexual unions) and press campaign against the law. While other Christian communities also support traditional moral values, and oppose the state initiatives, the role of the Roman Catholics is conspicuous. Despite the small number of Roman Catholics (less than 1% of Estonian believers), Estonian converted to Catholicism are active in politics, education, music and theatre. They promote traditional values such as the Christian faith, the heterosexual family, chastity and avoidance of birth control. In religious life, this dynamic Catholic minority primarily support traditional forms of worship (Latin mass) and theology. For example, followers of Archbishop Lefebvre, who was against the Second Vatican council reforms, known as Fraternitas Sacerdotalis Sancti Pii X (FSSP) have supporters among Estonian Catholics; the Brotherhood recently built a chapel in Tallinn. The defense of traditional moral values brings together Orthodox and Roman Catholics. They collaborate for the annual cultural festival Trialogos, coordinated by Taivo Niitvägi (non-profit organisation MTÜ Hereditas). The festival created a niche for Estonian cultural personalities converted to Roman Catholicism in the late 1980s. While the Russian Orthodox seem to share the defense of moral values with the Roman Catholics, the former are not very active in lobbying or opposing governmental initiatives. Their vulnerable legal position might be the reason beneath this timidity. 

Bioethics are another controversial realm wherein religious groups defend their vested interests. For instance, the law permitting surrogate motherhood is discussed since 2012 but debates have not met success. Estonia remains one of the few countries in the EU which does not allow surrogate motherhood. Recently, the non-profit NGO Viljatusravi Tugikeskus formally applied to the Ministry of Social Affairs to ask for the implementation of the law. An official commission evaluated international experiences as well as medical and ethical arguments. The Estonian Council of Churches protested against the bill on a twofold basis. The first argument is the potential complexity of ethical and psychological issues linked with surrogate motherhood; the second one is the problem of exploitation of women’s body. However, the Estonian Bioethics Council chair, Arvo Tikk, and the Ethics Centre in the University of Tartu supported the law. It is worth remarking that Tikk did not consider the significance of Estonian religious opinion.

A staunch difference remains between Estonia and the other East European countries such as Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and to some extent Latvia. Despite the efforts of activists defending conservative moral values, there is a lack of mass involvement in various campaigns against LGBT, same-sex marriage, sexual education, child rights charters. While believers and religious organizations express their disapproval, they rarely get involved into public action. Believers feel outnumbered by the secular majority who label them intolerant. For example, the publication by a Russian author of a textbook on family culture in Estonian language nurtured such a controversy that the book was not openly distributed. The award of the prestigious Aadu Luukas prize to the Roman Catholic layman Varro Vooglaid was accompanied by a scandal: a partner of the prize, one of the major banks of Estonia (Swedbank) cancelled its support to the prize because Vooglaid lobbied against laws favoring civil partnership. Swedbank’s decision was based on comments in social media, criticizing the decision of the prize-givers. 

Religious diversity of Estonian society is both the outcome of religious liberal politics and a reflection on the increasing impact of globalization. Despite the relatively small number of people who identify themselves as believers, the number of different types of religious associations have grown between the years of population census in 2000 and 2011 from 74 to 90. Meanwhile the number of followers within various religious affiliations have increased in average: in 2000, 39 groups had membership under 10 people, in 2011 there were only 24 such groups, while the groups with membership between 100 and 999 almost doubled, and those with 1000 and above increased from 12 to 16. Among the smaller groups are various New Religious Movements, New Age and life-style movements (“anarchotantrists”, “sun worshipers”, “fire worshippers”, “light-bearers”, Sahadza yoga, etc.). The recent rise of New Age spiritualties is complicated to classify as “religiosity” because these spiritualties are often presented as an alternative life-style. The main emphasis is on holistic improvement of mind and body: alternative healing, healthy eating, yoga, tantric exercises and lectures on sexuality, as well as oriental music, dance and clothing styles. Yet, these life-style practices form a subculture which generate interest in exotic religions and New Religious Movements. The larger groups that fall outside Christian churches, being members of Estonian Council of Churches are: Jehovah Witnesses (3938 members), Pentecostals (1855), Adventists (1194). Buddhists (1145) and Muslims (1508) represent larger non-Christian groups, while observant Jews (355) represents a small minority among Estonian Jews (1927)

Estonian Muslims (lead by the Mufti Ildar Muhhamedshin) are not a large community. According to the last population census data, it consists of 40% of Tatars, 10% Estonians, 7% Russians and 43% of other ethnic groups. Unlike other religious groups, Islam in Estonia has a slight preponderance of men (54%), which can be explained the fact that more of its adherents are single male migrants. Muslims in Estonia do not have mosques but they have an Islamic Centre in Tallinn which is closely monitored by the security police. A recent report of the security police stated that the Muslim community in general is skeptical towards fundamentalist interpretations of Islam, even though some individuals find these interpretations appealing. Attempts by the Al-Waqf Al-Islami organization to recruit adherents in Estonia in 2013 and 2014 remained largely unsuccessful even though two men left Estonia to fight for ISIS in Syria. From 2015, as KaPo reports, the advances of Al-Waqf Al-Islami receded.



The Estonian religious situation can be characterized by several patterns. Firstly, Estonia promotes its secular character in political declarations, international presentations and decision-making. However, the state declarations of neutrality in terms of religious matters and its liberal attitude are merely idealistic and prove to be difficult to turn into concrete political actions. The most pertaining factor for the state’s lack of neutrality is national security. Russian foreign politics, especially towards the Russian-speaking minorities in the former Soviet Union, is identified as the most serious factor for Estonian security interests. Therefore, the Orthodox church which is in jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Moscow cannot be ignored by the state and continues to be perceived as a foreign body within Estonian society. The Estonian Apostolic Orthodox church failed to win most of the Orthodox believers in Estonia despite the backing of the state. Thus, the state can hardly curtail Russia’s continuous cultural and ideological influence on a large part of the Russian-speaking population. Although being currently limited, the church’s influence can potentially increase. 

Secondly, as was pointed above, many surveys support the image of Estonia as one of the most secular countries in Europe. The problem of secularism is complex: attitudes towards religion vary from religious indifference to “spirituality without religiosity”, and to personal beliefs without any affiliation. A slight increase in the number of religiously committed people as well as non-affiliated believers has surfaced in recent years. Three to four years ago, social attitudes towards Christianity also began to change. This can be explained, first, by the growing presence of the Estonian Lutheran church in the media due to the vigorous efforts of the head bishop of Estonia Urmas Viilma, and, second, by the rise of the Christian schools’ movement and their positive image. Negative attitude of the main Christian churches towards single-sex marriages also brought supporters from the Estonian conservative audience. Experts feel that social attitudes towards religion are less negative. While people continue defining themselves as indifferent or non-religious, they keep their options open and take part in ceremonies, lectures, festivals and events organized by Christian schools or other religious actors. 

Thirdly, debates around the secular character of Estonia often concentrate on the ethnic Estonians who stick to irreligion or religious indifference as part of their national narrative. But leaving aside the Russian-speaking minority distorts the general picture. As the recent Human Development report stated, social relations between Estonian and Russian-speakers are still “modest”. Identification of Russians with the Russian Orthodox church can be one of the factors strengthening the cultural and social separateness of Russian-speaking people in Estonia. Yet, identification and support of Russian Orthodox identity in Estonia, like in other Orthodox countries in Eastern and Central Europe do not affect concrete practices, such as regular church attendance and participation in sacraments. More research is needed to study Orthodoxy in Estonia, as it has both typical and untypical patterns, compared to the neighboring countries. We also need more qualitative studies focusing on the issues of interaction between ethnic, national and religious identity within the Russian diaspora in Estonia. 

Apart from the crisis within the Orthodox church in 1996-2000 and scandals with the church in Lasnamäe, religion has not yet proved to be a source of social threat and division in society. Trepid attitudes towards religion among Estonians, perhaps, make it less attractive for religious extremism. At the same time, Estonia is small and highly digitalized, which makes surveillance by the intelligence agency and security police (KaPo) much easier. 

The rise of conservative moral values affects Estonian society to some extent, as was expressed in campaigns denouncing the civil partnership act that legalized homosexual unions. But these agitations are mainly driven by activists rather than by the churches themselves. 

Overall, religion is relatively well integrated in civil society. During the Orthodox churches’ crisis, most of the controversial issues were handled through negotiations and to a large extent led to satisfaction for both sides of the conflict. The government collaborates with the Estonian Council of Churches, while the security police monitors the development of Islamic organizations in the country. The presence of experts in religious studies in the Ministry of Interior (Ringo Ringvee, who is a PhD in Theology) and the regular surveys of popular attitudes help monitoring new trends in the religious attitudes in society.

However, some problems remain such as the lack of communication and cooperation between the two Orthodox churches – each blaming the other side for unfriendliness. Continuous attempts of the Lutheran church to act as a state religion representing the symbolic values for Estonian nation is also an issue. There is a feeling among believers that the secular majority monopolized public discourse, leaving no chance to express their views for believers who are in a minority position. There is also a feeling that there is a lack of serious dialogue about the position of conservative religious believers on societal issues such as sexuality, abortion, marriage. As a rule, these values tend to be distorted and criticized without any attempt for a dialogue. While currently religion is largely marginal in the public sphere in Estonia, its role is likely to grow in the future. It will be then necessary for both religious and secular actors to define their position in a democratic, liberal context more consciously and less reactively.


Pour citer ce document :
Irina Paert, "Religion, Politics and Society in Estonia". Notes de l'Observatoire international du religieux N°02 [en ligne], octobre 2017.

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