International Religious Freedom Report 2006
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected this right in practice.

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 generally amicable relationship among religious groups in society continued to contribute to religious freedom.

The U.S. government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 17,666 square miles and a population of 1.35 million (68 percent ethnic Estonian, 26 percent Russian, 2 percent Ukrainian, 1 percent Belarusian, and 1 percent Finnish). The Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELC) was the largest denomination, with 165 congregations and approximately 170,000 members. The Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church (EAOC) had fifty-nine congregations with approximately 18,000 members and the Estonian Orthodox Church, subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate (EOCMP), had thirty congregations with approximately 150,000 members. There were smaller communities of Baptists, Roman Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostals, Old Believers, Methodists, and other denominations. There was a small Jewish community with 2,500 members, with a Jewish community center and a day school in operation. During a state visit to the country in September 2005, Israel's President Moshe Katsav participated in a ceremony to lay the cornerstone of a new synagogue. There were also communities of Muslims, Buddhists, and many other denominations and faiths; however, each of these religious groups had fewer than 6,000 adherents.

Fifty years of Soviet occupation diminished the role of religion in society. Many neighborhoods built since World War II do not have religious centers, and many of the surviving churches require extensive renovations. In September 2005, the first resident Roman Catholic bishop since World War II was ordained in Tallinn. The renovation of two churches-St. John's Lutheran Church in Tartu and St. Simeon's and St. Anne's Orthodox Church in Tallinn-was completed during 2004-2005. St. John's Church, which had been in ruins since 1944, was inaugurated in December 2004. The City of Tallinn has its own ongoing project for renovation of churches in the city. In 2005, renovation work took place in eight churches, including Dome Church, St. Olaf's Church, St. George's Church, and others. Church attendance, which had seen a surge coinciding with the independence movement in the early 1990s, has since decreased significantly.

Many groups have sent foreign missionaries into the country in recent years. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) had the largest number of missionaries.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected this right in practice. The Government at all levels sought to protect this right in full, and did not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors. The constitution states that there is no state church.

There are other laws and regulations that directly or indirectly regulate individual and collective freedom of religion. The activities of religious associations are regulated by the Churches and Congregations Act and the Non-Profit Associations and Unions Act. The statutes of churches, congregations, and unions of congregations are registered at the city courts.

The Churches and Congregations Act decrees that the commanding officer of each military unit shall guarantee conscripts the opportunity to practice their religion. Military chaplain services extend to service members of all faiths. The Churches and Congregations Act decrees that prison directors shall ensure inmates the opportunity to practice their religion. Conscripts and prisoners exercised this right in practice.

A church, congregation, and association of congregations must have a management board. A person who is a citizen or who has the right to vote in local government elections may be a member of a management board. In order to formally register with the city court, the management board of a religious association submits an application signed by all members of the board. A congregation must have at least twelve adult members. The minutes of the constitutive meeting, a copy of statutes, and a notarized copy of signatures of the members of the management board serve as supporting documents for the registration application.

A program of basic ecumenical religious instruction was available in public schools. A school is under obligation to offer religious studies at the primary or secondary level if at least fifteen students request it. Comparative religious studies were available in public and private schools on an elective basis. There were no official statistics on how many students participated in these classes. There were two private church schools in Tartu that had a religious-based curriculum.

The Government took steps to promote anti-bias and tolerance education. Since 2003, the Government observes the annual Holocaust and Other Crimes against Humanity Victims' Memorial Day on January 27. The country is a liaison member of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research. A Holocaust education seminar for schoolteachers took place in August 2004, in cooperation with a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) and Sweden's Living History Forum, and co-financed by the Ministry of Education. During the reporting period the Government provided more than two hundred schools with a thirty-minute film about Holocaust history. In August 2005, the Government, together with the Task Force, supported a seminar for history teachers to discuss best practices for teaching the Holocaust in schools. The International Commission for Investigation of Crimes against Humanity on issues related to the German and Soviet occupations of the country continued its work.

The property restitution process, by which religious properties were transferred from the state back to religious associations, was carried out under the Principles of the Ownership Reform Act, passed in 1991. The process has largely been completed. By the end of the period covered by this report, most Orthodox Church properties, including those being used by the EOCMP, were under the legal control of the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church (EAOC). The Government transferred seven properties to the Estonian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchy during the period covered by this report, and further transfers are planned.

According to local Jewish leaders, property restitution was not an issue for the community, as most prewar religious buildings were rented, not owned.

Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Christmas, and Pentecost are national holidays.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

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

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the country.

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 Abuses and Discrimination

Relations between the various religious communities were generally amicable. Although the majority of citizens were nominally Lutheran, ecumenical services during national days, Christian holidays, or at public events were common.

Most of the religious adherents among the country's Russian-speaking population are Orthodox, while the Estonian majority is mostly Lutheran. There is a deep-seated tradition of tolerance of other denominations and religions.

In May 2005, two vandals knocked down thirty-nine stone crosses in a German war cemetery in Narva. The vandals were caught and pled guilty; prosecutors requested probation for one year. One church was vandalized during the reporting period. In July 2005, a drunken minor broke five stained glass windows of Viljandi St. Paul's Church and was fined. In April 2005, a fire was set at the library of Tartu St. Paul's Church. At first it was considered an accident, but in August 2005 it was established that it was an act of arson. As a result of the fire, many valuable volumes of church literature were destroyed. The police took a suspect into custody. A police investigation was ongoing at year's end. During the period covered by this report one graveyard was vandalized. A vandal damaged over twenty grave plaques as well as crosses, lanterns and benches in a Parnu cemetery. The police started a criminal proceeding. Earlier thefts of church property prompted the Estonian Council of Churches and the Board of Antiquities to initiate a database of items under protection. The database, which comprises digital photos and detailed descriptions, is shared as needed with law enforcement agencies.

In June 2005, a person was found guilty by a district court for writing an essay that publicly incited social hatred on the basis of national origin, race, or religion. In his essay, he called for destroying all Christians, Jews, and churches. He appealed to the Supreme Court and was acquitted. In August 2005, a city court fined a person for making anti-Semitic comments over the Internet. In September 2005, a district court let the decision stand and, in December 2005, the Supreme Court confirmed the opinion.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. Officials of the U.S. Embassy met with the religious affairs department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, NGOs, and a wide range of figures in religious circles. During the period covered by this report, U.S. Embassy officials continued to engage the Government and nongovernmental actors to promote dialogue and education on Holocaust issues in the country.

The U.S. government funded a travel grant to two history and civics teachers to attend a one-week U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM)-arranged training program at Appalachian State University and a two-day program at USHMM from June 26 to July 5, 2005. In the framework of the agreement between the Government and the United States on the Protection and Preservation of Certain Cultural Properties, two Holocaust memorials were opened on the sites of Nazi labor camps at Klooga and Kivioli in July 2005. In April 2006, the U.S. Embassy hosted a digital video conference between the Southern Poverty Law Center and representatives from the Government and civil society on the subject of promoting tolerance, including religious tolerance and Holocaust studies.