Religious Freedom and Legislation in Post-Soviet Estonia

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I. INTRODUCTION

This article focuses on the issues of religious freedom and legislation in Estonia during the 1990s and compares Estonia's experience with that of the other two Baltic countries-Latvia and Lithuania.1 These three countries share a recent common history in the struggle for independence. All of them are part of the so-called post-socialist or post-Soviet countries. However, at the same time they are unique in many aspects due to their cultural differences. These differences are reflected in these countries in legislation concerning religious organizations.

II. HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

After the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, some of the nations of the Empire started to fight for their independence. In 1918, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania declared their independence. The first independence era lasted until 1940 when the three Baltic States were incorporated into the Soviet Union.

The changes in Baltic political life and society affected religious life in Estonia, as the official ideology of the Soviet Union was Marxist atheism. Consequently, Soviet policies focused to some degree on abolishing religion from the lives of the people in the Soviet Union, and Soviet officials began interfering with the life of religious communities. In 1940, some traditional religious organizations were banned by Soviet officials,2 the theological faculty at the University of Tartu was closed, and atheist organizations were formed.3 The remaining religious communities were affected by the application of a 1926 Criminal Law of the Federation of the Soviet Socialist Republics of Russia, which rescinded the legal entity status of these religious communities. As a result, these communities lost the ability to own churches and other buildings.4 From that point on, the communities had to pay rent for the use of their buildings of worship.

During the period of the German occupation from 1941 to 1944, religious life was liberalized to some extent. Nonetheless, the theological faculty at the University of Tartu was not re-opened. As a result, the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church established its own institution of higher theological education.

In 1945, when Estonia again became part of the Soviet Union, the Commissioner of the Council for Religious Affairs was established. This local branch of the Council for Religious Affairs of the Council of People's Commissars of the Soviet Union in Moscow had a crucial role in diminishing the importance of religious organizations in Soviet Estonia.5

In 1945, the Baptist, Evangelical Christian, Free Church, and Pentecostal congregations were united by the Soviet authorities and were incorporated into the Union of Baptists and Evangelical Christians in the Soviet Union. Likewise, in 1945, the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, which gained independence from the Patriarch of Moscow Tikhon in 1920 and had belonged to the jurisdiction of the Patriarchy of Constantinople as an autonomous church from 1923 onward, was made a diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church. In addition, from 1946 to 1982, all religious publications of all religious communities were banned.6 Furthermore, all religious activity was discouraged and repressed.7 From the 1960s onward, the main target of the Marxist atheist propaganda was the generation born after the Second World War. During that period, many new Soviet rites of passage were introduced, including Soviet marriage rites and new rites for the Soviet youth to enter the age of adulthood. Consequently, from the 1960s onward, the adherence of individuals to religious communities began to fade.8

At the end of the 1980s, a religious revival took place in Estonia as it did in many Eastern European countries where religious life had been discouraged and repressed by the Communist system.9 In 1990, the Commissioner's office was dissolved. The independence of Estonia was restored in 1991.10

III. POST-SOVIET ERA RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN ESTONIA

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