International Religious Freedom Report 2003
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 Lutheranism as the country's official religion.

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 288,000. Most residents live on or near the coasts. The area surrounding the capital, Reykjavik, alone has approximately 62 percent of the country's total population.

According to the National Statistical Bureau, 249,456 persons (87 percent of the total population) are members of the state Lutheran Church. During the period covered by this report, a total of 882 individuals resigned from the Church, far exceeding the 196 new registrants. Many of those who resigned from the state Church joined one of the Lutheran Free Churches, which have a total membership of 12,062 persons (4.1 percent). The breakdown in membership is as follows: Reykjavik Free Church--5,694 members; Hafnarfjordur Free Church--3,922 members; and Reykjavik Independent Church--2,446 members. A total of 12,239 individuals (4 percent) are members of 21 other recognized and registered religious organizations: Roman Catholic Church--5,200 members; Pentecostal Church--1,681 members; The Way, Free Church--714 members; Seventh-day Adventists--726 members; Jehovah's Witnesses--649 members; Asa Faith Society--628 members; The Cross--513 members; Buddhist Association of Iceland--461 members; Baha'i Faith--380 members; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons)--191 members; The Icelandic Christ-Church--197 members; Muslim Association--229 members; Betania--139 members; Parish Of St. Nicholas Of The Russian Orthodox Church--92 members; The Church of Evangelism--78 members; Kefas, Christian Community--110 members; Sjonarhaed Congregation--53 members; Zen in Iceland, Night Pasture--36 members; The Believers' Fellowship--38 members; First Baptist Church--11 members; and the Birth of the Holy Mary, a Serbian Orthodox Church--113 members. There were 7,740 individuals (2.7 percent) who belonged to other or non-specified religious organizations and 6,704 (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."

Although the majority of citizens use traditional Lutheran rituals to mark events such as baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals, most Lutherans do not actively practice their faith. A growing number of citizens are choosing to mark important anniversaries and events with nonreligious ceremonies. For example, in the spring, 90 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 increase in foreigners (itinerant workers, immigrants, and refugees), the number of religious organizations has increased. Foreigners make up over half of the Catholic population in Iceland. The Reykjavik Catholic Church holds one service each week in English, and many Filipinos attend. A growing number of Catholic Poles live in Iceland, where they work in the fishing and boat building industries. Since there are few Catholic churches outside of Reykjavik, Lutheran ministers regularly lend their churches to Catholic priests so that they may conduct masses for members in rural areas.

Mormons are the only significant foreign missionary group 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 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 Constitution provides all people the right to form religious associations and to practice religion in accordance with their personal beliefs. It also bans teaching or practices harmful to good morals or public order. In addition the General Penal Code protects religious practice by establishing fines and imprisonment for up to three months for those who publicly deride or belittle the religious doctrines or worship of a lawful religious association active in the country.

Article 62 of the Constitution establishes the Lutheran Church as the state church and pledges the State's support and protection of the Church. Parliament has the power to pass a law to change this Article. Although surveys show that the majority of citizens favor the concept of separation of church and state, most probably would not support the change if it meant closing down Lutheran churches because of lack of funding. Although few citizens regularly attend services, they see the Lutheran religion as part of their culture and view the closing of a church as losing a part of their heritage. A bill to separate church and state will go before the next session of parliament but is not expected to succeed.

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 neighborhood.

A 1999 law sets specific conditions and procedures that religious organizations must follow to gain state subsidies. All taxpayers 16 years of age and older must pay a church tax amounting to approximately $104 (ISK 7,800) a year and a cemetery tax of approximately $40 (ISK 2,952) a year. Individuals are free to direct their church tax payments to any of the religious groups 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, asserting that this is inconsistent with the constitutional right of freedom of association.

During the year the Government gave the state church approximately $46 million (ISK 3.5 billion). Of that, the church tax funded $18 million (ISK 1.4 billion), the cemetery tax $8.4 million (ISK 645 million), and general revenues $20 million (ISK 1.5 billion). The state church runs all cemeteries in Iceland, and the $8.4 million from the cemetery tax must be used solely for this purpose. The church tax also provided a total of $1.6 million (ISK 126 million) to the other recognized religions and a total of $1.05 million (ISK 83.6 million) to the University of Iceland.

Religious organizations that are seeking to be, or are already, officially recognized and registered must meet these conditions. No restrictions or requirements are placed on unregistered religious organizations, which have the same rights as other groups in society. 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 to determine the bona fides of the applications. To become 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 Justice 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 old and pay taxes in the country.

A Sunni Muslim group attempted to register in 2001, but the Ministry of Justice rejected its application because it was incomplete. The group has reapplied, and the board is currently reviewing its application.

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 one Roman Catholic parochial school, which is located in Reykjavik. All schools are subject to Law Number 66 with respect to the compulsory curriculum. However, the precise content of this instruction can vary. The curriculum is not rigid, and teachers often are given wide latitude in the classroom. Some teachers place greater emphasis on ethical and philosophical issues rather than on specifically religious instruction. Lessons on non-Christian religions are part of the curriculum, but teachers ultimately teach mostly about Christianity.

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.

According to a report published this year by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), in some cases children find it difficult to obtain exemption from religious instruction, especially at the primary level. In addition, members of several non-Christian organizations expressed their concern to ECRI that students ridicule classmates who opt out of religious education. The ECRI report urges school officials to provide children who do not wish to attend religious instruction in Christianity with alternative classes. The report also asks officials to give all children the opportunity to learn about different religions and faiths.

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, but many church groups sponsor meetings between the leaders of the various religious organizations. One of the ministers of the state Church, who is of Japanese origin, has been designated to serve the immigrant community and help recent arrivals of all faiths integrate into society.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

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

The Falun Gong requested a government apology stemming from incidents during the June 2002 visit by Chinese President Jiang Zemin to the country. They also filed a complaint with the Parliamentary Ombudsman, who can make recommendations to the Government. The complaint was being investigated at the end of the period covered by this report.

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 NGOs 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 NGOs.