International Religious Freedom Report
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, the State financially supports and promotes an official religion, Lutheranism.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion. The Lutheran Church, which is the state religion, enjoys some advantages not available to other faiths in the country.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

The U.S. Government discuses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

Iceland has a land area of 40,000 square miles and a population of 282,845. This gives Iceland an average of just 7 inhabitants per square mile. However, because the interior of the country is largely uninhabitable, most people live on or near the coasts. The area surrounding the capital, Reykjavik, alone has more than 160,000 residents, or about 60 percent of the country's total population.

Of the total population, 248,411 are members of the state Lutheran Church (88 percent), according to the National Statistical Bureau. Some 1,115 individuals resigned from the Church during the past year, far exceeding the 184 new registrants. Many of those who resigned from the state Church joined one of the three Lutheran Free Churches, which now have a total membership of 11,098 (4 percent). The breakdown in membership is as follows: Reykjavik Free Church 5,345; Hafnarfjordur Free Church 3,485; and Reykjavik Independent Church 2,268. Some 10,661 individuals (4 percent) are members of 20 other recognized and registered religious organizations: Roman Catholic Church 4,307; Pentecostal Church 1,494; The Way, Free Church 733; Seventh Day Adventists 723; Jehovah's Witnesses 644; Asa Faith Society 512; The Cross 461; Buddhist Association of Iceland 432; Baha'i Community 386; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 191; The Icelandic Christchurch 176; Muslim Association 164; Betania 114; The Rock, Christian Community 72; The Church of Evangelism 65; Kefas, Christian Community 63; Sjonarhaed Congregation 51; Zen in Iceland, Night Pasture 34; The Believers' Fellowship 33; and First Baptist Church 6. Betania was the only new religious organization officially recognized and registered during the past year. Finally, there were 6,325 individuals (2 percent) who belonged to unregistered or unspecified religious organizations and 6,350 (2 percent) who were not part of any religious organization. There are also religions, such as Judaism, which have been practiced in the country for years, but have never requested official recognition. In official statistics these religions are listed as "other and non-specified."

A large proportion of citizens who belong to the state Lutheran Church do not practice their faith actively. However, the majority of citizens use traditional Lutheran rituals to mark events such as baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals. Of Christians who practice their faith actively, the majority are members of Christian churches or organizations other than the state Lutheran Church. Finally, growing numbers of Icelanders are choosing to mark important anniversaries and events with nonreligious ceremonies rather than traditional Lutheran rituals. For example, in the spring of 2001, 73 teenagers chose to be "confirmed" in a ceremony carried out by the secular organization "Ethical Education."

According to statistics provided by the immigration authorities, the number of foreigners receiving a residence permit has increased significantly during the past several years. In direct relation to the increased number of foreigners (itinerant workers, immigrants, and refugees), the number of religious organizations has increased, since such foreigners often practice faiths different than those of citizens born in the country.

There are no significant foreign missionary groups in the country.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. The Government at all levels generally protects this right in full, and does not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors. The official state religion is Lutheranism.

The salaries of the 146 ministers in the state church are paid directly by the State, and these ministers are considered to be public servants under the Ministry of Judicial and Ecclesiastical Affairs. The State operates a network of Lutheran parish churches throughout the country. In new housing areas, land is automatically set aside for the construction of a parish church to serve the area. Except for those who specifically opt out, all citizens 16 years of age and above must pay a church tax of approximately $6 (Icelandic kronur 554.24) per month, which goes to support the operation of the state church. Individuals who choose to opt out of the state church may direct their monthly payments to another religious denomination or organization, provided that denomination or organization has been recognized and registered as such by the State. In cases where the individual has not indicated a religious affiliation, or belongs to an organization that is not recognized officially and registered by the State, the church fee is directed to a secular institution--the University of Iceland.

A law passed by Parliament in December 1999 (Law Number 108) sets specific conditions and procedures that religious organizations must follow in order to be recognized officially and registered by the State. Such recognition is necessary in order for religious organizations other than the state church to receive a per capita share of church tax funds. The 1999 law is narrower in scope than the 1975 law it replaced and applies only to religious organizations that are seeking to be, or are already, officially recognized and registered. No restrictions or requirements are placed on unregistered religious organizations, which have the same rights as other groups in society. The law was considered necessary to deal with frequent attempts by individuals to obtain recognition of religious organizations simply to receive the tax income benefits. The Ministry of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs handles applications for recognition and registration of religious organizations. The 1999 law provides for a three-member panel consisting of a theologian, a lawyer, and a social scientist from the University of Iceland to determine the bona fides of the applications. In order to be recognized officially and registered, a religious organization must, among other things, be well established within the country and have a core group of members who regularly practice the religion in compliance with its teachings. All registered religious organizations are required to submit an annual report to the Ministry of Judicial and Ecclesiastical Affairs describing the organization's operations over the past year. The new law also specifies that the leader of a religious organization must be at least 25 years of age and pay taxes in Iceland. However, the previous requirement that the leader had to be Icelandic was eliminated.

Law Number 108 confirms that parents control the religious affiliation of their children until the children reach the age of 16. However, parents are required by the law, in accordance with the Children's Act, to "consult" their children about any changes in the children's affiliation after the age of 12. In the absence of specific instructions to the contrary, children at birth are assumed to have the same religious affiliation as their mother and are registered as such.

The Government is passive rather than proactive in promoting interfaith understanding. The Government does not sponsor programs or official church-government councils to coordinate interfaith dialog. However, one of the ministers in the state Church, who is of Japanese origin, has been designated to serve the immigrant community and help recent arrivals integrate into Icelandic society.

Under Law Number 66, which regulates public elementary schools ("grunnskolar"), the Government requires instruction in religion and ethics based on Christianity during the entire period of compulsory education; that is, ages 6 through 16. In a debate over whether the instruction should be "Christian" or "religious," the traditionalist view prevailed. Virtually all schools are public schools, with a few exceptions such as the only Roman Catholic parochial school, which is located in Reykjavik where the vast majority of the country's small Roman Catholic community resides. All schools are subject to Law Number 66 with respect to the compulsory curriculum. However, the precise content of this instruction can vary; religious instruction at the Catholic school follows Catholic rather than Lutheran teachings.

Students can be exempted from Christianity classes. According to Law Number 66, the Minister of Education has the formal authority to exempt pupils from instruction in compulsory subjects such as Christianity. In practice, individual school authorities issue exemptions informally. There is no obligation for school authorities to offer other religious or secular instruction in place of Christianity classes.

Educational material on different religions is part of the compulsory syllabus. In addition, since religion is a component of culture, pupils learn about religions other than Christianity in history and social science classes as well. The curriculum is not rigid and teachers often are given wide latitude in the classroom. Some place greater emphasis on ethical and philosophical issues rather than on religious instruction per se.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Government policy and practice contributed to the generally unrestricted practice of religion. There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by the report.

There are no religious detainees or prisoners.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. If members of religious minorities face discrimination, it is more indirect in nature, taking the form of prejudice and lack of interfaith or intercultural understanding. Iceland has a small, close-knit, homogenous society that closely guards its culture and is not accustomed to accommodating outsiders. Even though most citizens are not active members of the state church, it is still an important part of the country's cultural identity.

During the last decade there has been increased awareness of other religious groups. Informal interfaith meetings have occurred. Two local human rights organizations were established recently. Diversity Enriches was established on December 10, 1998. Its board members include government officials, journalists and academics; it aims at assisting "new residents" of the country. The Human Rights Association of Immigrants and their Families was founded on June 12, 1999. These organizations are a reflection of the increased attention being given to the status of new immigrants and their religious beliefs.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the overall context of the promotion of human rights. The Embassy also maintains a regular dialog on religious freedom issues with the leaders of various religious groups and nongovernmental organizations.