The constitution bars the federal government from making any law that imposes a state religion or religious observance, prohibits the free exercise of religion, or establishes a religious test for a federal public office. The government considered public feedback on revised draft religious freedom laws whose stated aim was to make it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of religious belief or activity in key areas of public life. Citing pressures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government announced the legislation’s consideration would be delayed to an unspecified date. As movement restrictions imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19 began to ease in the latter part of the year, several religious leaders criticized remaining state government restrictions, saying they unfairly affected religious communities. Parliaments in the two most populous states – New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria – initiated inquiries into laws with the stated purpose of strengthening protections against religious discrimination and vilification. While Catholic archdioceses welcomed the legislation, some individual Catholic leaders expressed opposition to state laws enacted in Victoria and Queensland requiring religious leaders and workers to report evidence of child abuse, including evidence heard in confession.
There were reports that COVID-19 enabled conspiracy theorists, neo-Nazi sympathizers, and far-right hate groups to introduce new avenues of attack on religious organizations. Members of minority religious groups, including Jews and Muslims, experienced instances of religious discrimination, threats, attacks, and hate speech. Allegations of anti-Semitic bullying in a Melbourne school received widespread media attention and in July, the Victoria Department of Education launched an investigation into claims two Jewish brothers were regularly the subjects of verbal and physical abuse. There were several reports of anti-Semitic verbal attacks in Melbourne. In NSW, a man was jailed for 10 months for posting anti-Muslim threats on social media.
The U.S. embassy and consulates general engaged government officials and a wide range of religious leaders, faith communities, and groups to promote religious freedom. This included engagement with members of the country’s Uyghur community, some of whom have reported harassment by the Chinese Communist Party in the country.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination “without an acceptable reason” and provides for the right to profess and practice a religion and to decline to be a member of a religious community. The law prohibits breaching the sanctity of religion, which includes blasphemy, offending that which a religious community holds sacred, and disturbing worship or funeral ceremonies. In September, the Supreme Court affirmed the ban on the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), the largest neo-Nazi group in the country. Authorities continued to investigate NRM members for engaging in banned activities as part of the successor group Towards Freedom, including public demonstrations. According to representatives of their respective groups, immigration authorities denied most asylum applications from Jehovah’s Witnesses from Russia and Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan. More than 50 cases of Jehovah’s Witness asylum applicants were pending before the Supreme Administrative Court at year’s end. In July, a court upheld an ethnic agitation fine for a Finns Party Member of Parliament (MP), while parliament declined to remove the immunity from prosecution of another Finns Party MP who was being investigated for ethnic agitation concerning comments he made during a parliamentary session that equated Muslim asylum seekers with invasive species. In August, police completed their investigation into anti-Semitic comments made by an MP from the Social Democratic Party (SDP). In August, the Ministry of Interior created a working group dedicated to improving security at religious sites, including synagogues and mosques. In January, a municipal councilor in Polvijarvi from the SDP resigned after posting comments to Facebook questioning whether the Holocaust occurred. In February, the Oulu District Court fined an Oulu city councilor for two counts of ethnic agitation for posting videos online depicting Muslims and other immigrants as being inferior to other human beings.
Police reported 133 hate crimes involving members of religious groups in 2019, the most recent statistics available, compared with 155 such incidents in 2018, but did not specify how many were motivated solely by religion. The nondiscrimination ombudsman’s office received 37 complaints of religious discrimination in 2019, compared with 35 in 2018. The NRM continued to post anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic statements online and acted to circumvent the ban of the organization by continuing activities as part of Towards Freedom. There were several demonstrations by neo-Nazi or nativist groups. Towards Freedom burned an Israeli flag during a rally in Tampere on January 27, which coincided with International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Also in late January, vandals targeted the Israeli embassy and Jewish property, including the Helsinki and Turku synagogues. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working with migrants, including the Finnish Refugee Advice Centre, continued to raise concerns about the ability of religious minorities housed in migrant reception centers to worship without harassment from other migrants housed within the same center. Muslim groups reported a shortage of funds needed to establish houses of worship to match their growing population.
U.S. embassy staff engaged with government ministries to discuss government support for religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, the government’s response to anti-Semitic incidents, and the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Ahmadis seeking asylum. Embassy staff met with the Jewish and Muslim communities to discuss their shared concerns about the impact of government guidelines discouraging male circumcision, and addressed religiously motivated crimes and continuing problems involved in establishing a sufficient number of mosques for the Muslim population. Embassy staff also discussed the state of religious freedom with these communities, other religious minority groups, and interfaith networks.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion. It references Jesus Christ and God and stipulates the state shall respect religion. On January 1, a law repealing the constitution’s prohibition on blasphemy entered into force. From March until June, and again in October, all in-person religious services were suspended due to COVID-19 mitigation measures. Critics said it was inconsistent to ban religious services but keep certain businesses open. In July, parliament passed a law that allowed civil courts to accept written evidence accompanied by a “statement of truth” rather than sworn on a religious oath. There were reports some school authorities in national Catholic schools continued to give preferential treatment to students for participating in religious activities and told parents that, contrary to law, their children could not opt out of religion classes. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to urge the government to adopt hate crime legislation, including for religiously motivated crimes, and improve monitoring of such incidents. In February, a member of parliament made anti-Semitic statements on Twitter, which were repudiated by her party and for which she later apologized. President Michael Higgins and other senior government officials participated in the National Holocaust Day Memorial commemoration.
On July 31, approximately 200 Muslims performed prayers at an interfaith celebration to mark Eid al-Adha in Dublin’s Croke Park. Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish community leaders, as well as members of government, attended. A group of young people protested Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin’s attendance at the event. In August, members of the far-right group Siol na hEireann protested outside the church of a Catholic priest who had allowed two members of the Muslim community to give a blessing at a Mass in April and accused him of being a heretic. Five members of this group held an anti-Muslim protest at a mosque in Mayo in October. The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), an independent statutory body, reported it received 36 complaints of employment discrimination based on religion in 2019.
U.S. embassy officials discussed issues of discrimination and integration of religious minorities into the community with members of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department of Education and Skills, and the police. Embassy officials met with religious groups, secularist advocates, and NGOs to discuss their concerns over religious tolerance, secularism, and religion in the national school system.