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Estonian history since the thirteenth century is a series of conquests by Germans, Danes, Swedes and Russians who fought against Estonians and among themselves for the control over the territory, each one having a turn in ruling and consequently in influencing the development of people in the territory of the present day Estonia. Compared to other Baltic Sea countries, Christianity arrived in Estonia relatively late.
There were missionaries in Estonia before the thirteenth century. However, the Christian religion failed to assert itself without military force. Several different and often competing religious and lay powers participated in an effort to conquer the Eastern coast of the Baltic Sea: the papal curia, the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen (to whom the Pope had granted the right to conduct missionary work in North Estonia as early as mid-ninth century), the Teutonic Order (which relocated from the Holy Land to Poland and Prussia) and the Danish and Swedish crowns.
By mid fourteenth century the Order of the Teutonic Knights acquired control over most of Estonia.
Although the Baltic Germans were Kulturträger in one sense, cultural life from the thirteenth century onwards was divided along national and social lines. Christianity was also slow to take root in Estonia. “Although the reforms were discussed and even recommended by the Livonian Church (e.g., the Riga Synod 1437), no significant results were achieved before the upheaval occasioned by Martin Luther”. The translation of religious texts into Estonian also played a significant role at the beginning of sixteenth century.
In the 17th century, when Estonia came under the sovereignty of Sweden, a systematic ordering of life under the Lutheran Church began, and the Catholic Church was practically expelled from Estonia. The Reformation changed the Church-State relationship to that of a State Church or, more precisely, a Land Church.
The subjection of the country to Russian rule from the beginning of the 18th century did not change anything in principle. Some liberties were guaranteed in the 19th century: for example, the Grace of Czar Alexander I in 1817 permitted the activities of the Herrnhut Movement. In 1840s it was possible to convert from the Land Church (Lutheran Church) to the Czar’s Church, the Russian Orthodox Church (but not vice versa), and in the 1880s the first Free Church (Baptist) congregations were established. The freedom of religion was formally guaranteed to all the subjects of the Czar by the Tolerance Act of 17 April 1905.
The history of the law on religions in the Republic of Estonia may be divided into four main periods. The first started with the formation of the independent State in 1918 and with the adoption of the 1920 Constitution, which set forth the principle of a strict separation of State and Church. This was followed by the 1925 Religious Societies and their Associations Act (Usuühingute ja nende liitude seadus), which reaffirmed the principle of equal treatment of all religious organisations, and the separation of state and church.
The second period (the 1930s) saw significant political changes in Estonian society, which were characterised by the centralisation of State administration, the concentration of power, a decline of democracy, and the expansion of State control. In 1934 the Churches and Religious Societies Act (Kirikute ja usuühingute seadus) was enacted, not by Parliament but by decree of the State Elder (Riigivanem, President). This Act established different legal treatment for churches and for other religious societies. The status of some churches, especially large ones, was to a certain extent similar to the status of a State Church. According to section 84(1)(b) of the 1938 Constitution, the leaders of the two largest and most important churches gained ex officio membership of the Riiginõukogu (Upper House of Parliament). The government of all churches was subjected to control by the State.
The third period began with the Soviet occupation of Estonia. The law on religions in the Soviet Union was based on the 1918 Leninist decree on the separation of church from state, and school from church. The bizarre fact is that the separation of state and church (religious organisations) was actually a nonseparation, because the state controlled all the aspects of religious organisations, including their leaders and sometimes even their members. Estonia became part of the USSR in 1940 and had little legislative independence during the occupation. USSR law dictated the laws on freedom of religion for the entire occupation period.
The fourth period began with the regaining of independence at the beginning of the 1990s and with the adoption of the 1992 Constitution. Estonia started to rebuild its legal order on the principle of restitution, while at the same time acknowledging the changes over time in European legal order and thinking. The Estonian Constitution provides express protection to the freedom of religion. Article 40 provides that:
Everyone has freedom of conscience, religion and thought. Everyone may freely belong to churches and religious associations. There is no state church. Everyone has the freedom to practise his or her religion, both alone and in a community with others, in public or in private, unless this is detrimental to public order, health or morals.
The religious freedom clauses in the 1992 Constitution were followed by the 1993 Churches and Congregations Act (Kirikute ja koguduste seadus, 1993 CCA). On 1 July 2002, the 1993 law was replaced by a new Churches and Congregations Act (Kirikute ja koguduste seadus, 2002 CCA). The 2002 CCA differed from the earlier law principally in the way in which religious organisations were registered by the government. Previously, under the 1993 CCA, religious associations were registered by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. According to the new law, religious associations are registered by the registration departments of courts.
Kiviorg, M. (2019). State and Church in Estonia. In G. Robbers (Ed.), State and Church in the European Union. Baden-Baden: Nomos, pp. 127-130.
However, religious communities may also operate without any legal status if they choose so. Religious associations like non-profit associations have the right to establish private schools.
The category of “religious minorities” does not exist in Estonian legislation or legal framework. Several of the Christian minorities are represented in the ecumenical Estonian Council of Churches with whom the Government of Estonia signed a protocol of common interests. The Estonian Council of Churches consists otherwise of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and two Orthodox Churches also of the Baptist, the Methodist, the Pentecostal, the Seventh-day Adventist, and Charismatic Episcopalian churches, as well as the congregation of the Armenian Church and the Roman Catholic Church in Estonia. The Council is also the most effective religious lobby group. The religious or belief minorities have occasionally succeeded in directing governmental policies, such as the House of Native Religions who lobbied for the governmental program for the protection of sacred landscapes, or the Estonian Jewish Community and Estonian Jewish Congregation that successfully avoided the banning of shechita slaughtering in Estonia.
Data and information concerning religious demography are provided by Todd M. Johnson and Brian J. Grim, eds., World Religion Database (Leiden/Boston: Brill, accessed August 2021).
General information on minority issues (including some references to religious or belief ones) can be found at the page devoted to Estonia in Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples https://minorityrights.org.
The text of the main legislative acts concerning freedom of religion or belief can be found at https://www.legislationline.org.
Legislative acts on the legal status of the main religious denominations are available at https://www.siseministeerium.ee.
A report on the Estonian legal system and government policies about freedom of religion (with some references to religious or belief minorities) is provided in U.S. Department of State – Office of International Religious Freedom, 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom: Estonia, available at https://www.state.gov.
For an overview about the origins and development of Estonia’s minority policy see R. R. Kionka, Estonia’s Minority Policy: Origins and development, in Republic of Estonia – Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Yearbook, 2007, pp. 31-40.
For an analysis of the State-religion legal system see
M. Kiviorg, Religion and Law in Estonia, Alphen aan den Rijn: Wolters Kluwer, 2016.
The legal issues of minority religions are discussed in Ringo Ringvee, Stand Up For Your Rights: (Minority) Religions’ Reactions to the Law in Estonia, in Eileen Barker and James T. Richardson (Eds.), Reactions to the Law by Minority Religions, London & New York: Routledge, 2020.