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Scandinavia and the Baltic Countries PDF Print E-mail

Juha and Marja Pentikainen
The University of Helsinki, Finland

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Berlin, Germany, May 29-31, 1998

Juha Pentikainen: Ladies and Gentlemen, we both came here because we are worried about freedom of religion globally and in the countries where we work. I will begin with some principal remarks and then we will go to the details concerning Scandinavia and the Baltic countries. I will comment on the history and my wife, who is working with the current problems of foreigners and refugees, will tell something about the contemporary situation in Scandinavian countries.

First, what is freedom of religion? The answer depends on another concept and definition. What is religion? Is religion universal? Certainly, yes, as a phenomenon. We share the opinion expressed by our colleague, Clyde Kluckhohm. There are three characteristics that separate homo sapiens from the animal world: 1) abstract language; 2) constructive use of tools; and 3) religion. There are no people, no ethnic group, no nation in the globe without something related to what we call religion. This concerns both history and the present. Religion as a concept, however, is not universal. There are from six to seven thousand languages spoken in the world. Most of these languages do not have a concept for religion in their vocabularies. However, they do have religion.

One example comes from my research with shamanistic peoples in Siberia. An illiterate Nanay shamaness named Lindz replied to my question, “What is religion?” “Religion! It is Russian. We have our shamans only.”

The concept of religion, of course, is related to the Latin verb religio. It means to be bound with someone considered to be divine, or sacred. This aspect of being bound is, to a great extent, related to the whole concept of religious freedom. It seems to be even ideologically bound to this concept, religio. What is religio? It is certainly a human right. We have just celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, defined by the UN. Because the concept of religion does not belong to the cultural mother tongue of most peoples, nations or cultures, the declaration has not been understood in the same way by all the peoples and by all the nations. Westerners say it is not understood in the proper way. We may however ask, what is the proper way to comprehend or to understand? Is our way the only proper way?

Islam, for example, is related to Arabic languages. Dîn is a word that is used about religion in the singular. It means Islam, the doctrine of Allah, received by the Prophet and written according to the dictation by the angel Gabriel, hence sacred and divine. Muslims have their own human rights, their own declarations. They say the United Nations text is not universal, but is a result of Western thinking, colonialism, mission, and infamous power. Muslims today demand sharia in countries they immigrate into. Of course, without giving it to the others in the countries they are ruling.

Now, coming to the Scandinavian and Baltic countries: at the moment as we are eight countries all together, a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union. One is my own country of Finland. Around Finland, there are three so-called Baltic republics, or countries: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. There are also four Scandinavian countries speaking Scandinavian languages: Icelandic, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish. The respective countries are, of course, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. When speaking about these countries we should keep in mind the fact that they have been the most northern places where East and West have met in Europe.

They have, more precisely, met among the most northern people in Europe, the Sami. There are four Scandinavian speaking countries, but there are 12 Sami languages, and they are spoken by only 35,000 people. Six of these belong to the Western branch of Christianity—formerly Catholicism, and today Lutheranism—and six of them belong to the Eastern branch of Christianity, Orthodox Christianity. This is the most northern borderline in Northern Europe. Therefore, we have several languages transmitted as our cultural tongue.

Marja Pentikainen: I will talk to you about the Nordic countries. They are different today than before, of course. There are so many foreigners now. The countries of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland all have different policies toward foreigners, but Sweden is in its own class. It has had a very liberal and tolerant policy. Sweden used to be the richest country in Scandinavia. For example, in the 1970s, Sweden took in almost a half of million Finnish workers. Many immigrants came from far away to Sweden during that period, too. Many came from distant countries with different languages, cultures, and religions. Nowadays, there are more than 200 national and ethnic groups in Sweden. The same development has taken place in Denmark and Norway, and little by little, in Finland too.

The first wave of immigrants into Scandinavia came for economic reasons, and a better standard of living. For example, tens of thousands of workers came from Muslim countries to Sweden and later to Norway, as a result of the emergence of oil and gas production, Norway can now be called a ‘new’ old country. The second wave were refugees and asylum seekers coming from Central America, Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. These immigration movements have changed the whole population structure of Scandinavian countries in every way. This means that Scandinavian countries are gradually moving toward multiculturalism, with an accompanying new crop of religions. Freedom of religion must be redefined soon in the Nordic countries. This includes the three Baltic countries too. They have a special role to mediate in the movement of refugee groups to Scandinavia. They are often coming, via Moscow, to seek the freedom that they believe they will find in Scandinavia. Perhaps it is a dream—I think so.

Of course, Finland has a very special role, because Finland geographically lies just between Sweden and Russia. I can tell you, for example, that many asylum seekers who came to Finland via Moscow thought that they were in Sweden. They were very disappointed when they realized that they were in Finland, a country they have never heard about. Little by little, by the way, I think that a big problem will develop, if the religious issues are not taken seriously. We have to remember that many are refugees because of their religion. We will have a serious problem if we don’t discuss this and realize that point. On the basis of my experience of the last decade that I am working with them, and I have come to know that, for many foreigners, religion is a way of life. We should know this and accept it with respect.

Juha Pentikainen: Thank you Marja. I think this information that you shared with us helps us to realize something that is behind the policy toward freedom of religion in Scandinavian countries. There is a European principle that translates: “whose religion—his religion.” This principle was defined in Germany on the basis of Martin Luther’s Reformation of the 16th century. Scandinavia and the Baltic countries have based their freedom of religion principle on the old German practice, which is related to the right to join, or to membership. This means the right to have a confession and then cultic freedom to practice. This is not based on conscience or a right for religious thinking.

Even universally speaking, we have a special form of Christianity in Scandinavian and Baltic countries, which I would like to call Nordic etno religio. That is a typical membership Christianity. People belong to the religion of the state in which they live. In this manner, every immigrant who comes to Sweden becomes not only a citizen of the Kingdom of Sweden, but also a member of the state Lutheran Church. Is this religious freedom? That is another question. It is related to the fact that King Gustav, who defined this policy of the 16th century, was not a very religious man. He was much more interested in power politics when he joined the Protestant Reformation in Germany. He wanted to extend his power over the forest country in the east, in Finland, and for that reason, the boundaries between Sweden, Finland and Russia became religious borderlines. If you were on the Swedish border with Finland, you had to believe in the right way, i.e. Lutheran. If you believed in the Russian way, i.e. Orthodox, you were obliged to even flee from the country.

For this reason, there have been many bloody wars and painful stories about those who are rejected in the history between East and West even in modern Europe. One occurred in the beginning of the eighteenth century. Peter the Great founded his city, St. Petersburg, in the midst of a Finnish settlement in Ingria. We have with us here today the first Bishop of the Ingrian Lutheran Church, Leino Hassimen. He knows the history of the Ingrian population well. Therefore, the fact that the center of the Russian Empire was built right in the corner of Finland meant new developments in our history. It also gradually meant that Finland became a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire, and finally an independent country in 1917. Finland then organized its own constitution, with one of the basic cornerstones being freedom of religion. Norway, which was a part of Denmark, then became an independent country. Finally, the Baltic countries became independent at first after World War I, and finally after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

In Finland, about 85 percent of the total population, belong to the Lutheran Church, and one percent to the Russian Orthodox Church. There are twenty other registered religious communities. Yet, most religious communities in Finland are not registered as such, but only as civil organizations. That is an interesting fact. All of the new religions, for example, have established themselves, not as religious bodies, but as registered societies.

In Sweden, quite recently in the 1990s, there have been problems with the Church of Scientology. Why? The issue, largely, is not a case against the Church of Scientology itself, but one that involves the freedom of speech and text. Swedish law does not protect the privacy of religious texts. Therefore, they do not have any respect toward the dogmas or sacred texts of Scientologists, and have declared them public. For this reason, there have been quite a few serious conflicts with the Scientologists in Sweden recently. Otherwise, I think that the situation in Sweden has been quite settled. The same issue has also been a concern in Denmark.

In Norway, some problems arose when the government tried to organize religious education for Muslims. There are today about 35 different mosques in Oslo. These mosques have been separated according to ethnic traditions and principles, and not that much by religious principles.

As far as the Baltic countries are concerned, Estonia has always been a Lutheran country. Lutheranism was a crucial part of the movement that led to independence for Estonia in 1989. Since the first political symbols and messages were transmitted as a part of the Lutheran Church, in their religious sights, places, and shrines they could not be prohibited and a religious action movement started which has resulted in a very interesting development. Latvia is half-Lutheran and half-Catholic. Lithuania has been, like Poland, quite Catholic in its attitudes. One special issue has always concerned a group of the Old Believers, Starovery in Russian. They came over the border to the Baltic countries and Finland as refugees from Russia. There have always been problems with them in the Baltic countries, but at the same time, they have found their place as inhabitants in Finland and the Baltic countries. There has also been a certain ease in Estonia in adopting themselves to religious or political reforms. It is no secret that the Communist Party, during the Soviet period, had the most members in Estonia. I think this is, to a certain extent, related to the bloody history of the Baltic countries. They have been obliged to adapt themselves.

In Finland today, the Ministry of Education has established a committee to define a new constitution on freedom of religion. I think that this poses some a danger for freedom of religion.

The small population of about 200,000 in Iceland is a special case as far as their religion is concerned. Iceland is still building its cathedral in the capital of Rezlajansite, a project started forty years ago. The Icelandic people do not seem to be very interested in religiosity. Today the largest growing churches are related to Odin, the most ancient German, Nordic god.

Freedom of religion is an important aspect. In Europe today, the borders are different than in 1975, when the Helsinki Accords for European security and cooperation were signed. We are living in a changing world, and I think it is important that we who are interested in religion also take part in the process of the legislation and dialogue concerning the freedom of religion, which is one of the basic freedoms of humankind.

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