International Religious Freedom Report 2002
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 discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 39,600 square miles, and its population is approximately 286,000. Most residents live on or near the coasts. The area surrounding the capital, Reykjavik, alone has more than 160,000 residents, or approximately 60 percent of the country's total population.

According to the National Statistical Bureau, 249,256 persons (87 percent of the total population) are members of the state Lutheran Church. A total of 990 individuals resigned from the Church during 2001, far exceeding the 225 new registrants. Many of those who resigned from the state Church joined one of the Lutheran Free Churches, which have a total membership of 11,633 persons (4.1 percent). The breakdown in membership is as follows: Reykjavik Free Church--5,520 members; Hafnarfjordur Free Church--3,755 members; and Reykjavik Independent Church--2,358 members. A total of 11,471 individuals (4 percent) are members of 20 other recognized and registered religious organizations: Roman Catholic Church--4,803 members; Pentecostal Church--1,630 members; The Way, Free Church--726 members; Seventh Day Adventists--725 members; Jehovah's Witnesses--638 members; Asa Faith Society--568 members; The Cross--502 members; Buddhist Association of Iceland--445 members; Baha'i Community--387 members; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons)--198 members; The Icelandic Christ-Church--188 members; Muslim Association--178 members; Betania--128 members; Parish Of St. Nicholas Of The Russian Orthodox Church--71 members; The Church of Evangelism--69 members; Kefas, Christian Community--74 members; Sjonarhaed Congregation--52 members; Zen in Iceland, Night Pasture--39 members; The Believers' Fellowship--39 members; and First Baptist Church--11 members. The Birth of the Holy Mary, a Serbian Orthodox Church, was recognized and registered during 2002; however, its membership figures were not available by the end of the period covered by this report. The Rock-Christian Community withdrew its registration as a registered religious organization in 2001 and merged with the Pentecostal Church. There were 7,344 individuals (2.6 percent) who belonged to other or non-specified religious organizations and 6,571 (2.3 percent) who were not part of any religious organization. There also are 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. Growing numbers of citizens are choosing to mark important anniversaries and events with nonreligious ceremonies rather than traditional Lutheran rituals. For example, in the spring of 2002, 49 teenagers chose to be "confirmed" in a ceremony carried out by the 160-member Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association, a secular "life stance" organization founded in 1990 and a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

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.

Mormons are the only significant foreign missionary group in the country.

Support for a separation of church and state is strong. Polls since 1993 show that from half to two-thirds of those persons taking a position on the issue favor separation of church and state. This support is strongest among the youth. A nongovernmental organization (NGO) with the goal of separation of church and state was established in 1994. Bills proposing separation are introduced in Parliament on a regular basis.

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 strives to protect this right in full, and does not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors. The official state religion is Lutheranism.

The State directly pays the salaries of the 146 ministers in the state church, and these ministers are considered 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 automatically is set aside for the construction of a parish church to serve the area. All taxpayers 16 years of age and above must pay a church tax amounting to approximately $73 (ISK 6,800) per year and a cemetery tax of approximately $30 (ISK 2,800) per year. A 1987 law on the church tax provides for it to increase in accordance with average incomes; however, in December 2001, Parliament passed a special provision, freezing the 2002 tax at the 2001 level as an inflation-fighting measure. Individuals are free to direct their church tax payments to any of the 21 religious denominations and organizations officially registered and recognized by the State. For individuals who are not registered as belonging to a religious organization, or who belong to one that is not registered officially and recognized by the State, the tax payment goes to the University of Iceland, a secular institution. Atheists have objected to having their fee go to the University, claiming that it is inconsistent with their constitutional right of freedom of association.

The 2002 budget of the State church amounts to approximately $35 million (ISK 3,215.9 million). Of that, $14 million (ISK 1,282.5 million), or 40 percent, is funded by the church tax; $14.5 million (ISK 1,330.4 million), or 41 percent, comes from general revenues; and the remaining $6.5 million (ISK 603 million), or 19 percent, is funded by the cemetery tax. All the cemetery tax revenues go directly to the State church regardless of the taxpayer's religious affiliation. The State church acts as caretaker of the country's cemeteries; there are no private cemeteries. Persons of all religions have the use of the cemetery services. In 2002 religious organizations other than the State church are expected to receive $1.2 million (ISK 111.9 million) from the church tax while the University of Iceland is expected to receive $800,000 (ISK 72 million).

A 1999 law (Law Number 108) sets specific conditions and procedures that religious organizations must follow to be recognized officially and registered by the State. Such recognition is necessary for religious organizations other than the state church to receive a per capita share of church tax funds. The law 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 address 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. 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 the country.

A Sunni Muslim group attempted to register in 2001; however, the Ministry of Justice rejected its application in 2002 because it was incomplete. The Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association attempted to register as a religious organization in 2002; however, the Ministry of Justice rejected its application on the basis that life stance organizations do not qualify as religious denominations.

Law Number 108 confirms that parents control the religious affiliation of their children until the children reach the age of 16. However, the Children's Act requires that parents 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.

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 15. 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 may be exempted from Christianity classes. The law provides the Minister of Education with 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 specifically religious instruction.

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 society.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Government policy and practice contributed to the generally free practice of religion.

Beginning on June 7, 2002, the Government attempted to prevent Falun Gong members from entering the country during a June 12-16 visit by Chinese President Jiang Zemin. On June 11, the authorities detained 67 alleged members of Falun Gong from various countries; however, on June 12, the Government released the detainees and allowed them to enter the country. The Government then changed its strategy and tried to bar Falun Gong members by denying them permission to board Iceland-bound flights at airports in the United States and Europe. The Chinese Government provided lists of alleged Falun Gong members to the government authorities. Despite the Government's efforts, approximately 250 Falun Gong followers succeeded in gaining entry. They publicly practiced their routines without interference and, following negotiations with the Government, were permitted to stage protests against the Jiang Zemin visit in limited times and places. The Government ended its efforts to exclude Falun Gong upon Jiang Zemin's departure. The Government justified its actions on the basis of security, claiming that it did not have sufficient law enforcement resources to control large or violent protests and that the restrictions were necessary to ensure the Chinese President's safety. The Government's treatment of Falun Gong members provoked heavy criticism within the country from politicians, the media, and the public.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

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. The country 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, and two NGO's assist new immigrants.

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 NGO's.