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Sweden

Executive Summary

The constitution protects “the freedom to practice one’s religion alone or in the company of others” and prohibits discrimination based on religion. In March, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) declined to hear the case of two midwives who said the regional hospitals, and by extension the state, had infringed on their religious beliefs and freedom of choice by denying them employment due to their opposition to abortion, which is legal in the country. In September, the Malmo Administrative Court overturned the Bromolla Municipality’s ban on prayer during working hours. In November, the Malmo Administrative Court overturned the ban on hijabs, burqas, niqabs, and other face- and hair-covering garments for students and employees in preschools and elementary schools introduced by Skurup and Staffanstorp Municipalities. In January, a government inquiry proposed a ban on the establishment of new independent religious schools, beginning in 2023, and increased oversight on existing schools having a religious orientation. The Migration Agency’s annual report, released in February, reported large regional variations in the assessment of asylum cases of Christian converts from the Middle East and elsewhere. Some politicians from the Sweden Democrats, the country’s third largest political party, made denigrating comments about Jews and Muslims. Prime Minister Stefan Lofven and other politicians condemned anti-Semitism and religious intolerance. The Prime Minister announced his country’s endorsement of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, including its list of examples of anti-Semitism. The government continued funding programs aimed at combating racism and anti-Semitism and reducing hate crimes, including those motivated by religion. On September 20, the government allocated 10 million kronor ($1.22 million) to start preparations connected to the establishment of the country’s first Holocaust museum.

Deputy Secretary General of the Swedish Evangelical Alliance Jacob Rudenstrand said cases of threats and violence due to the public display of religious symbols had increased during the year. In July, media reported unidentified individuals assaulted an 11-year-old boy, mocking him for his Christian beliefs and taking the cross he was wearing. In February, media reported three men assaulted a Jewish woman, taking her Star of David pendant and mocking her for being Jewish. In January, the Equality Ombudsman (DO) concluded the first of three inquiries into a Jewish doctor’s allegations of anti-Semitism at New Karolinska Hospital (NKS) and found NKS had not complied with its duty under the Discrimination Act to investigate alleged harassment. In November, the DO concluded the second inquiry and found that the doctor’s union had been in breach of the Discrimination Act when it advised the doctor on remedies to pursue. In a related incident in December, the Health and Social Care Inspectorate rejected a 2019 claim by NKS that the same doctor posed a risk to patient safety and rebuked NKS for identifying the doctor’s religion in its complaint. According to media, on August 28, supporters of the Danish right-wing political party Hard Line burned one Quran and kicked another Quran in Malmo. The individuals involved filmed and posted their actions online, leading to violent protests against the defilement of the Qurans. On the day his supporters defiled the Qurans, authorities issued a two-year entry ban on Hard Line’s leader, but in October, they rescinded the ban after confirming he held Swedish citizenship. In September, individuals burned two Qurans, one each in Stockholm and Malmo, and posted videos of the burnings on social media. Christian and Jewish leaders condemned the actions and expressed solidarity with the Muslim population. In October, the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities and the country’s chapter of the European Jewish Congress protested the Arab Book Fair in Malmo for making a book promoting anti-Semitism available online. Media reported that in September, the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM) held a series of anti-Semitic demonstrations on Yom Kippur that the World Jewish Congress said were done in coordination with NRM in Norway, Denmark, and Iceland. NRM members stood outside a synagogue in Norrkoping holding anti-Semitic banners and spread anti-Semitic messages in several cities. In response, Justice Minister Morgan Johansson said the government condemned “all acts of anti-Semitism and any other expression of racism,” and he joined the IHRA’s condemnation of NRM’s actions. In October, the Defense Research Agency published a study that found approximately 35 percent of online posts about Jews contained anti-Semitic stereotypes, and an additional 10 percent did not explicitly include a stereotype but still expressed hostility towards Jews. During the year, courts convicted several leading NRM members for hate speech and for death threats on social media directed against Jews. In February, producers of the television reality show Big Brother removed two contestants for making anti-Semitic remarks.

The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, and other U.S. embassy representatives continued to meet with the Ministries of Justice, Culture, and Foreign Affairs, the Swedish Agency for Support to Faith Communities (SST), parliament, police, and local government officials on religious freedom issues, supporting government efforts to improve security for religious groups, and highlighting threats to members of some religious minorities, including Muslim immigrants. The Ambassador hosted an event for four Swedish Holocaust survivors in February with leading members of the Jewish, Catholic, and Muslim communities, and civil society representatives. Embassy officials underscored the importance of religious tolerance with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim representatives in Malmo, Gothenburg, and Stockholm. The Charge spoke to a leader of the Jewish community to express concern following the NRM’s anti-Semitic activities on Yom Kippur.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

On March 12, the ECHR declined to hear the case of two midwives who said regional hospitals, and by extension the state, infringed on their rights to freedom of religion and conscience by rejecting them for employment as midwives due to their conscientious objection to abortion. Abortion is legal in the country. The ECHR found that authorities acted lawfully and declined to consider the case, stating, “While the Convention on Human Rights gives the right to freedom of conscience, it is not a human right to get a job in the health care sector.” There was no procedure for appealing the decision. On March 13, 77 Christian leaders wrote an opinion piece criticizing the ECHR’s decision.

In September, the administrative court in Malmo, the country’s third-largest city, overturned the Bromolla Municipality’s ban on prayer during working hours. The court stated the ban contravened rights of religious freedom granted by the constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. The ban, which applied to all municipal employees, was passed by the local council in 2019 and was criticized by Christian and Muslim representatives.

The Sweden Democrats continued to advocate local and national bans on the Islamic call to prayer. On March 1, Tomas Tobe, a European Parliament Member for the Moderate Party, stated in an opinion piece that the Islamic call to prayer should be banned in residential areas because individuals have the right not to be exposed to a religious message. Tobe wrote the ringing of church bells should be continued due to the country’s historical ties to Christianity. In a response published in the Aftonbladet newspaper on March 5, the Liberal Party’s Youth Association wrote, “A secular state must have a neutral attitude to the role of religion in society. The state should not dictate which religion is more right than another.”

On November 17, the Malmo Administrative Court found Skurup and Staffanstorp Municipalities’ ban on hijabs, burqas, niqabs, and other head- and face-covering garments for students and employees in preschool and elementary school was contrary to the constitutional provision on religious freedom and to the European Convention on Human Rights. The court thereby revoked the ban. Chief Councilor Peter Kristiansson stated, “A restriction of religious freedom requires legal support, something that is lacking in these cases.” He added that neither the Education Act nor any other law accorded a municipality the right to decide on such restrictions. The administrative court determined that parliament had rejected proposals to ban headscarves; therefore, there was no legal support for deciding on such bans at the municipal level. On November 13, the DO concluded its investigation of the ban and found it breached the Discrimination Act on religious grounds. On December 8, Skurup and Staffanstorp Municipalities appealed the verdict to the Gothenburg Court of Appeals. The appeal was pending at year’s end. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders continued to state that the ban constituted an infringement on religious freedom.

All six healthcare regions continued to offer circumcision, although the National Board of Health and Welfare had no statistics on how many children were circumcised during the year.

Some Muslim groups and the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities continued to state they considered the law requiring stunning of and/or administration of anesthetics to animals prior to slaughter in conflict with their religious practices. The Muslim community remained divided over whether the requirement conformed to halal procedures. The Jewish community reported the law effectively prevented the domestic production of kosher meat. Most halal meat and all kosher meat continued to be imported. On December 17, the European Union Court of Justice ruled EU member states may impose a requirement that animals be stunned prior to slaughter and that such a requirement does not infringe on the rights of religious groups.

On January 8, a government inquiry committee presented its findings on how a ban on the creation of new independent schools with a religious orientation could be introduced. In June 2019, Minister of Education Anna Ekstrom said, “In recent years, we have seen examples of schools that in the name of religion, separate girls and boys, hardly teach about sexuality and coexistence, and equate evolution with religious creation myths. This is totally unacceptable.” The committee proposed a ban on establishing such schools, starting in 2023. The committee recommended that no approvals be granted to private entities that wished to operate a faith-based preschool class, compulsory school, compulsory special school, upper secondary school, upper secondary special school, or after-school center. The independent National Agency for Education estimated 9,400 students, approximately 1 percent of all elementary and preschool students, were enrolled in the 72 registered schools having a religious orientation. Judicial experts commented on the inquiry committee’s recommendations, stating to media that according to the European Convention on Human Rights, it could be discriminatory to restrict families’ right to choose schools based on religious beliefs, and that the ban could interfere with the law of freedom of trade. Ekstrom said implementing the committee’s proposal would be “tricky” but would work, if handled correctly. The committee recommended existing schools with a religious orientation be allowed to remain, but it recommended there be greater oversight by the School Inspectorate and the municipalities. Existing schools would be required to report religious orientation and ensure that student participation in education with religious elements was voluntary.

During the year, seven of eight political parties represented in parliament, except for the Christian Democrats, supported banning the establishment of new religious independent schools. Representatives of several religious groups, including the Church of Sweden, the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities, the Christian Council of Sweden, and Sweden’s Young Catholics, opposed the proposed ban. The groups stated that schools with a religious orientation helped ground the students in their minority culture and that a ban could be contrary to legislation regarding minority rights. The Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions, the Swedish Teachers’ Association, and the municipalities of Stockholm, Malmo, Uppsala, and Gavle supported the proposed ban.

The Migration Agency’s annual report, released in February, indicated large regional variations in the assessment of asylum cases of Christian converts from the Middle East and elsewhere, with approval rates ranging between 18 and 33 percent. The report also stated that on average, 25 percent of converts received a residence permit. In 2019, the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Scandinavian Human Rights Lawyers, in partnership with five Christian organizations, issued a report criticizing the Migration Agency for rejecting asylum applications from Christians – primarily those who converted to Christianity while in the country – who said they risked religious persecution in their home countries. The authors of the 2019 report concluded the Migration Agency had a poor understanding of religious conversion and its decisions on converts were arbitrary. Following the critique, the government requested the agency report how it handled converts’ cases and how it met legal standards in matters where religion was stated as a factor in consideration for asylum.

In September, Deputy Secretary General of the Swedish Evangelical Alliance Rudenstrand again said Christian refugees, including but not limited to converts, faced persecution, particularly from Muslim refugees who were new to the country. Christian refugees said they were not safe in the country and the government should take measures to protect them.

There were reports that representatives of the Sweden Democrats – the country’s third largest political party – made denigrating comments about Jews and Muslims.

On September 9, Expo, a nonpartisan NGO, reported in its magazine that Mari Herrey, a local Sweden Democrat politician in Molndal and lay judge on the Gothenburg District Court, posted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and white supremacy symbols on Twitter. Herrey remained on the local Molndal council, and, following an investigation by the Gothenburg District Court, was allowed to remain as a lay judge (a politically appointed, nonprofessional individual serving at the local level who helps presiding judges, similar to a juror in the U.S. legal system). The court’s chief judge, Johan Kvart, stated to media that Herrey’s posts were “disgraceful” but that she had acted out of naivety and ignorance, without ill intention.

On September 15, media reported that Dennis Askling, leader of the Sweden Democrats in Haninge, expressed Nazi sympathies and white supremacy theories in an online message to a fellow party member in 2017. Media reported that, among other things, he wrote Nazi phrases such as “Hell Seger” (Swedish for “Sieg Heil”) and derogatory comments about synagogues and people of African descent. Askling also worked for the party’s secretariat in parliament and was the Sweden Democrat’s juror on the panel of political party representatives that gives out the Stockholm Region’s annual award honoring antiracism and anti-xenophobic service. Askling stepped down from both the secretariat and panel positions shortly after the media reports were published. The Sweden Democrats’ press officer stated the opinions expressed were “reprehensible” and did not comport with the party’s politics and values.

In a January 22 opinion piece published in the Israeli media outlet Yedioth Ahronoth, Prime Minister Lofven called on the world to fight for the memory of the Holocaust and said he was concerned about anti-Semitism in “many parts of society in many countries, including in my home country.” Prime Minister Lofven endorsed the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, including its list of examples of anti-Semitism. The World Jewish Congress and the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities welcomed the endorsement.

On January 27, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Prime Minister Lofven, Crown Princess Victoria, and Speaker of Parliament Andreas Norlen attended a memorial ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camps. At the event, World Jewish Congress President Robert S. Lauder welcomed Prime Minister Lofven’s public pledge to combat anti-Semitism and his endorsement of the IHRA definition, with its list of illustrative examples of anti-Semitism.

The Media Council, a government agency whose primary task is to promote the empowerment of minors as conscious media users and to protect them from harmful media influences, continued its “No Hate Speech Movement,” which included efforts to stop the propagation of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. The council offered classroom and online material for students and suggestions on how to address these issues with children.

The high-level Malmo International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism was postponed until October 13-14, 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government allocated five million kronor ($612,000) annually for 2018-20 to the Swedish Committee against Anti-Semitism and the Living History Forum (LHF) (a public agency “commissioned to work with issues related to tolerance, democracy, and human rights, using the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity as its starting point”) to increase opportunities for student and teacher study visits to Holocaust memorial sites and signaled its intention to allocate six million kronor ($734,000) for 2021-22.

As part of its continuing National Plan to Combat Racism, Similar Forms of Hostility, and Hate Crimes, the government provided 15 million kronor ($1.84 million) to religious organizations and civil society to improve their security, compared with 22 million kronor ($2.69 million) in 2019. A wide range of civil society organizations, including religiously oriented NGOs, remained eligible for funding from the Legal, Financial, and Administrative Services Agency to improve their security by, for example, purchasing security cameras and hiring security guards.

The government provided 10 million kronor ($1.22 million) during the year to fund educational efforts to combat racism and support tolerance, including religious tolerance, in schools, and increased support to civil society. It allocated an additional 10 million kronor ($1.22 million) to the Police Authority to prevent and investigate hate crimes, including those related to religion. Part of the funding was earmarked for the Police National Operations Department, which assisted the country’s regional authorities with investigations of hate crimes.

The SST continued to collaborate with other government agencies and civil society to promote dialogue between the government and faith communities as well as to contribute to the public’s knowledge about religion. During the year, the SST continued to cooperate with several municipalities and regions to set up interreligious dialogues with a focus on democracy promotion, countering violent extremism, and educating municipal employees on issues of religion and religious freedom. As part of the government’s implementation of the National Plan to Combat Racism, Similar Forms of Hostility, and Hate Crimes, SST cooperated with Muslim congregations to increase knowledge of safety measures for mosques.

The SST continued to partner with government entities such as law enforcement authorities, the Civil Contingencies Agency, Defense Research Agency, Public Health Agency, National Agency for Education, Government Offices (comprising the Prime Minister’s Office, government ministries, and the Office for Administrative Affairs), Crime Prevention Agency, Migration Agency, and others in supporting ongoing government inquiries, coordinating COVID-19 responses, and facilitating meetings with different faith communities, including groups not registered with the SST. The SST cooperated with 15 religious leaders to make informational videos about COVID-19 for distribution on social media. The SST continued offering courses in family law and movements within Islam and started an interfaith mentorship course for female leaders. The agency continued to fund, publish, and promote publications aimed at educating the public about religious minorities, such as the report, A multi-religious Sweden in Change, published in September.

The Swedish Agency for Youth and Civil Society provided grants to civil society organizations working to combat religious intolerance. Grants included 320,000 kronor ($39,200) to the Swedish Committee Against Anti-Semitism to educate members of political youth associations about anti-Semitism.

The government continued to fund the LHF. The government allocated 49.3 million kronor ($6.03 million) to the LHF (compared with 46.5 million kronor [$5.69 million] in 2019), which provided lesson plans, books, and other resources for teachers. Topics included anti-Semitism, Holocaust remembrance, ethnic and religious conflicts in the Balkans, and critical reading of history. On September 22, the LHF opened the public exhibition “Sweden and the Holocaust” at its showroom in Stockholm. At the opening, Minister for Education Ekstrom said, “By learning about our history we can strengthen and defend our open and democratic Swedish society today and in the future.”

On March 27, Prime Minister Lofven and Minister for Culture and Democracy Amanda Lind discussed the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic with leaders from the Pentecostal Movement, Stockholm Catholic Diocese, Syrian Orthodox Church, Church of Sweden, Christian Council of Sweden, Swedish Buddhist Community, United Islamic Associations of Sweden, and the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities. On September 10, the government announced an additional 50 million kronor ($6.12 million) to faith communities for 2020 and 2021. The government said the additional funds were intended to mitigate the financial impact on faith communities, including declining revenues and increasing expenditures for funerals, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The funds were distributed to the state-subsidized faith communities and the Church of Sweden.

On February 27, the government allocated 10 million kronor ($1.22 million) for a national initiative to strengthen Holocaust education. Of this amount, six million kronor ($734,000) went to the LHF to implement an educational program that included the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. The National Historical Museums received 2.3 million kronor ($281,000) to translate the English-language educational exhibition “Dimensions in Testimony” into Swedish and to add testimony from Swedish Holocaust survivors. The government provided 1.2 million kronor ($147,000) to the University of Gothenburg to produce a research overview of the role of education within the school system in countering anti-Semitism and other forms of racism.

On September 20, the government allocated 10 million kronor ($1.22 million) to the LHF to start preparations for the establishment of the country’s first Holocaust museum, including collecting documents and recording the stories of Swedish Holocaust survivors. In making the announcement, the Ministry of Culture said in a statement, “The Holocaust is a crime against humanity that is unparalleled in our history. Its memory and lessons must continue to be preserved and communicated about. Never again must something similar to this happen.”

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