The constitution declares there is no state church and protects the freedom of individuals to practice their religion. It prohibits the incitement of religious hatred, violence, or discrimination. The law establishes registration of religious associations and religious societies and regulates their activities. Unregistered religious associations are free to conduct religious activities but are not eligible for tax benefits. The government continued to provide funds to the Council of Churches for ecumenical activities. On January 27, the government held an annual memorial event on Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Rahumae Jewish Cemetery in Tallinn. In April, the government pledged two million euros ($2.45 million) for support of religious associations struggling as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, both to the members of the Council of Churches and to other independent congregations, including the Estonian Jewish Congregation and the Jewish Community of Estonia.
According to government statistics, in 2019 (the most recent data available), police registered eight cases of physical abuse, breach of public order, or threats (as defined by law) that included hatred against persons from religious or other minorities, compared with no cases in 2018. According to government sources, most of the cases were tied to the victim’s race or national origin. On October 25, at the height of the renewal of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, pigs’ heads were found in front of the Estonian Islamic Center and the embassies of Turkey and Azerbaijan. The perpetrator was charged for littering and fined 20 euros ($25).
U.S. embassy staff continued to support dialogue on religious freedom, anti-Semitism, and Holocaust education in meetings with government officials, religious leaders, civil society, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The embassy used social media to promote religious freedom, including a Facebook post celebrating International Religious Freedom Day.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census (the most recent data available), 29 percent of the population is religiously affiliated, 54 percent do not identify with any religion, and 17 percent do not state an affiliation. According to the Estonian Council of Churches data from December 2019, 13.8 percent of the population belong to the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, while 13.1 percent belong to the Estonian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate (EOCMP), and 2.3 percent belong to the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church. The Union of Free Evangelical and Baptist Churches of Estonia and the Roman Catholic Church in Estonia together comprise 1 percent of the population. Other Christian groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Russian Old Believers, collectively constitute 1.1 percent of the population. According to the 2011 census, there are small Jewish and Muslim communities of 2,500 members and 1,500 members, respectively. Most religious adherents among the Russian-speaking population belong to the EOCMP and reside mainly in the capital or the northeastern part of the country. According to 2011 census data, most of the country’s community of Russian Old Believers lives along the west bank of Lake Peipsi in the eastern part of the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares there is no state church and stipulates freedom for individuals to belong to any religious group and practice any religion, both alone and in community with others, in public or in private, unless doing so is “detrimental to public order, health, or morals.” The constitution also prohibits incitement of religious hatred, violence, or discrimination. According to the penal code, an act inciting hatred is a crime if it results in danger to the life, health, or property of a person. The law also states that violations are punishable by fines or up to three years in prison. The constitution recognizes the right to refuse military service for religious reasons but requires conscientious objectors to perform alternative service for the same amount of time required for military service as provided by law.
The law criminalizes activities that publicly incite hatred, violence, or discrimination on the basis of religion or other minority status if it results in danger to the life, health, or property of a person. Violators are subject to a fine or detention. The law prohibits any activity that knowingly interferes, without legal grounds, with the acknowledgement or declaration of religious beliefs or the absence thereof or exercise of religion or religious rites. Violators are subject to a fine or up to one year’s imprisonment.
The registration office of the Tartu County Court registers all religious associations and religious societies. To register, a religious association must have at least 12 members, and its management board must submit a notarized or digitally signed application, the minutes of its constitutive meeting, and a copy of its statutes. The law treats registered religious associations as nonprofit entities entitled to some tax benefits if they apply for them, such as a value-added tax exemption. There are more than 550 religious associations registered with the government.
The law does not prohibit activities by unregistered religious associations. Unregistered religious associations, however, may not act as legal persons. Unlike registered religious associations, unregistered associations are not eligible for tax benefits.
Religious societies are registered according to the law governing nonprofit associations and are entitled to the same tax benefits as religious associations. To register as an NGO, a religious society must have a founding contract and statutes approved by its founders, who may be physical or legal persons. The minimum number of founders is two. The society must submit its registration application either electronically or on paper to the Tartu County Court registry office.
The law requires the commanding officer of each military unit to provide its members the opportunity to practice their religion. Prison directors must also provide the opportunity for inmates to practice their religious beliefs. The state funds police and border guard, military, and prison chaplains, who may belong to any registered religious denomination, and must guarantee religious services for individuals of all faiths.
Optional basic religious instruction is available in public and private schools and is funded by the state. All schools must provide religious studies at the primary and secondary levels if students request these studies. The courses offer a general introduction to different faiths. Religious studies instructors may be lay teachers. There are also private religious schools. All students, regardless of their religious affiliation or nonaffiliation, may attend religious schools. Attendance at religious services in religious schools is voluntary.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to the government’s NGO register, two religious associations – one Protestant and one Buddhist – were registered during the year.
The government allocated 646,000 euros ($793,000) to the Estonian Council of Churches. The council, which comprises 10 Christian churches – including the Lutheran Church and both Orthodox Churches – continued to serve as an organization joining the country’s largest Christian communities. The government continued to fund ecumenical activities, including ecclesiastical programs broadcast by the Estonian Broadcasting Company, youth work by churches, activities promoting interreligious dialogue, and religious publishing.
In April, the government pledged two million euros ($2.45 million) for support of religious associations struggling as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, both to the members of the Council of Churches and to other independent congregations, including the Estonian Jewish Congregation and the Jewish Community of Estonia.
During the year, project coordinators completed plans for the restoration and renovation of Alexander’s Cathedral of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Narva. The project was being carried out using 844,000 euros ($1.04 million) in government funds pledged in 2019.
On January 27, the government held its annual memorial event for Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Rahumae Jewish Cemetery in Tallinn. Schools again participated in commemorative activities throughout the country. The Education and Research Ministry, in cooperation with the Jewish Community of Estonia, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), the Estonian Memory Institute, and the Museum of Occupation, organized an essay-writing competition for children on topics related to the Holocaust again this year.
The government is a member of IHRA.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On October 25, at the height of the renewal of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, pigs’ heads were found in front of the Estonian Islamic Center and the embassies of Turkey and Azerbaijan. Police identified the perpetrator and initiated misdemeanor proceedings pursuant to article regulating incitement to hatred. The perpetrator was ultimately charged for littering and fined 20 euros ($25).
According to government statistics, in 2019, the most recent year for which data was available, police registered eight cases of physical abuse, breach of public order, or threats (as defined by law) that included hatred against persons from religious or other minorities, compared with no cases in 2018. According to government sources, most of these cases were tied to the victim’s race or national origin.
According to many religious and other civil society leaders, there was societal support for religious freedom and tolerance.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials raised the importance of combating anti-Semitism, promoting religious tolerance, and promoting Holocaust education in meetings with government officials from the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs.
Embassy officials met with members of the Jewish community, leaders of religious associations, representatives of the Council of Churches, civil society groups, and NGOs to discuss religious tolerance and the state of religious freedom in the country. The embassy used social media to promote religious freedom, including a Facebook post celebrating International Religious Freedom Day.
The constitution provides every person the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” and it specifies the separation of church and state. By law, eight “traditional” religious groups (seven Christian groups and Jews) receive rights and privileges other groups do not. The government approved the applications of four new religious groups to register during the year. In October, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled on a 2016 religious discrimination case brought by a Jehovah’s Witness family who sought to take their child abroad for surgery in order to avoid a blood transfusion but were refused authorization by the Ministry of Health. The ECJ found religion could be taken into consideration in this case, and the Supreme Court, which had sought the ECJ determination, returned the case to the appellate court, which had denied the family’s appeal of the ministry’s decision. Raivis Zeltits, a member of the National Alliance (NA) political party, who in his writings likened diversity, including religious diversity, to “cultural terrorism,” established a nationalist nongovernmental organization (NGO) with a logo that resembled a stylized swastika. Zeltits denied any association between the NGO’s symbol and the Nazi swastika. According to the annual report of the security police, authorities continued to monitor Muslim community activities but made no interventions during the year. Muslim community members again said they did not feel pressured or singled out by authorities due to their faith. President Egils Levits and other senior government officials attended several Holocaust memorial events throughout the year.
Jewish and Muslim groups cited instances of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hate speech in news articles and on social media. A Muslim community leader said Muslims generally did not feel suppressed or subject to discrimination. In response to COVID-19 restrictions, most of the annual March 16 commemorations of the Latvian Legionnaires who fought in German Waffen-SS units against the Soviet Army in World War II, were canceled. Organizers converted the annual memorial march into a wreath-laying event, which was attended by at least one NA parliamentarian. On November 30, approximately 200 persons lit thousands of candles at the Freedom Monument in Riga in remembrance of Jews massacred by the Nazis in Rumbula Forest in 1941.
In October, the Secretary of State wrote Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics to reiterate the importance of resolving the country’s obligations under the Terezin Declaration. U.S. embassy officials regularly engaged with senior government officials and parliamentarians on the importance of religious tolerance and restoring expropriated property to the Jewish community. Embassy officials also engaged with NGOs MARTA Center and Safe House as well as representatives of various religious groups, including the Lutheran Church and the Jewish and Muslim communities, to discuss religious tolerance and acceptance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the Annual Report of Religious Organizations and their Activities published by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), based on 2019 data, the largest religious groups are Lutheran (37 percent), Roman Catholic (18 percent), and Latvian Orthodox Christian (13 percent), the latter predominantly native Russian speakers. Thirty-one percent of the population is unaffiliated with any religious group. The Latvian Orthodox Church is a self-governing Eastern Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Central Statistical Bureau reports there are 4,436 persons who identify as Jewish, and the Council of Jewish Communities believes there are around 8,200 persons with Jewish heritage. The Muslim community reports approximately 1,000 Muslims resident in the country, while the MOJ’s report of religious organizations lists 58 active members in three Muslim congregations. Separately, there is a small Ahmadi Muslim community. Other religious groups, which together constitute less than 5 percent of the population, include Baptists, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Old Believers, evangelical Christians, Methodists, Calvinists, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ).
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states everyone has the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” and provides “The church shall be separate from the state.” It allows restrictions on the expression of religious beliefs to protect public safety, welfare, morals, the democratic structure of the state, and others’ rights. The law gives eight “traditional” religious groups – Lutherans, Catholics, Latvian Orthodox Christians, Old Believers, Baptists, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Jews – some rights and privileges not given to other religious groups, including the right to teach religion courses in public schools and the right to officiate at marriages without obtaining a civil marriage license from the MOJ. These eight groups are also the only religious groups represented on the government’s Ecclesiastical Council, an advisory body established by law and chaired by the Prime Minister that meets on an ad hoc basis to comment and provide recommendations on religious issues. These recommendations do not carry the force of law.
Separate laws define relations between the state and each of these eight groups. The rights and activities of other religious groups are covered by a law on religious organizations.
Although the government does not require religious groups to register, the law accords registered religious groups a number of rights and privileges, including legal status to own property and conduct financial transactions, eligibility to apply for funds for religious building restoration, and tax deductions for donors. Registration also allows religious groups to perform religious activities in hospitals, prisons, and military units and to hold services in public places such as parks or public squares, with the agreement of the local government. The law accords the same rights and privileges to the eight traditional religious groups, which it treats as already registered.
Unregistered groups do not possess legal status and may not own property in the name of the group, although individual members may hold property. Unregistered groups may not conduct financial transactions or receive tax-free donations. They may not perform religious activities in hospitals, prisons, or military units and generally may not hold worship services in public places without special permission. The law stipulates fines ranging from 40 to 200 euros ($49 to $250) if an unregistered group carries out any of these activities.
By law, to register as a congregation, a religious group must have at least 20 members age 18 or older. Individuals with temporary residency status, such as asylum seekers and foreign diplomatic staff, may count as members for the purpose of registration only during the authorized period of their residency permits. To apply, religious groups must submit charters explaining their objectives and activities; a list of all group members (full name, identification number, and signature); the names of the persons who will represent the religious organization; minutes of the meeting founding the group; confirmation that members voted on and approved the statutes; and a list of members of the audit committee (full name, identification number, and title). The audit committee is responsible for preparing financial reports on the group and ensuring it adheres to its statutes. The MOJ determines whether to register a religious group as a congregation. The ministry may deny an application if it deems registration would threaten human rights, the democratic structure of the state, public safety, welfare, or morals. Groups denied registration may appeal the decision in court.
Ten or more congregations with a total of at least 200 members of the same faith or denomination, each with permanent registration status, may form a religious association or church. Groups with religious association status, or status as a private society or foundation, may establish theological schools and monasteries. The law does not permit simultaneous registration of more than one religious association of a single faith or denomination or of more than one religious group with the same or similar name.
According to the law, all traditional and registered religious organizations are required to submit an annual report to the MOJ by March 1 regarding their activities and goals. They must also provide other data, including congregation size, number of clergy, number of weddings, other ceremonies performed, and details of group governance and financial status.
The law criminalizes hate speech and the incitement of hatred on the basis of religious affiliation but requires legal proof, determined at trial, of substantial harm for conviction. Penalties range from community service or fines to up to three years of imprisonment. Committing a crime for religious reasons may also be considered an aggravating factor at trial.
The government funds required religion and ethics classes in public schools in first through third grade. A school must receive the approval of the parents of at least 10 students in order to hold religion classes in any of the eight traditional groups; if such approval is not obtained or if they prefer not to enroll in religion classes, students take courses on general ethics. The Center for Educational Content at the Ministry of Education must review the content of the classes to verify they do not violate freedom of conscience. Starting in fourth grade, religious subjects are incorporated into elective ethics and social science classes. If there is demand, schools are permitted to teach classes on the history of religion. Students at state-supported national minority schools may attend classes on a voluntary basis on the religion “characteristic of the national minority.” Other nontraditional religious groups without their own state-supported minority schools may provide religious education only in private schools. Religion courses in public schools range from doctrinal instruction by church-approved government-certified instructors, usually at the lower grades, to nondenominational Christian teachings or overviews of major world religions by certified teachers who are proposed by a religious group and approved by the Ministry of Education, usually at higher grades. Education guidelines require inclusion of Holocaust education in Latvian history and world history classes, which are mandatory for all students in public schools.
The law establishes an independent Ombudsman’s Office for Human Rights. Its mandate includes helping to resolve cases of religious discrimination through collaboration with authorities. While it does not have enforcement powers, it may issue recommendations to specific authorities. Parliament appoints the ombudsman.
The law stipulates foreign missionaries may be issued a residency permit, hold meetings, and proselytize only if a registered domestic religious group invites them to conduct such activities. Visa regulations require foreign religious workers to present letters of invitation, typically from a religious organization, and either an ordination certificate or evidence of religious education that corresponds to a local bachelor’s degree in theology. Religious workers from European Union or Schengen countries do not require visas.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
During the year, the MOJ approved the applications of four religious groups that applied to register for the first time: the Latvian Orthodox Autonomous Congregation of Riga, St. Alexander Nevsky; the Latvian United Brothers Congregation; the Jurmala Jewish Congregation; and the Christian Congregation “Victory.”
In October, the Supreme Court received a ruling from the ECJ on a 2016 religious discrimination case brought by a Jehovah’s Witness family who sought to take their child to Poland for surgery to avoid a blood transfusion, but the Ministry of Health refused to authorize the trip and the associated expenses. The ECJ’s ruling supported the consideration of religious beliefs in these types of treatment decisions, with exceptions. The ECJ stated that, when considering the requirement for prior authorization for hospital care, “The criteria and the application of those criteria, and individual decisions of refusal to grant prior authorization, must be restricted to what is necessary and proportionate to the objective to be achieved, and may not constitute a means of arbitrary discrimination or an unjustified obstacle to the free movement of patients.” Based on this ruling, the Supreme Court returned the case to the appellate court, which was expected to issue a decision in 2021 regarding whether the health ministry’s decision was restricted to what was necessary and proportionate. A Ministry of Health representative stated that a 2018 policy change better addressed costs for patients choosing treatment outside of the country.
In October, media reported NA member Zeltits established an NGO named Austosa Saule (Rising Sun) with a logo resembling a stylized swastika. He denied the NGO’s symbol was associated with the Nazi swastika. In his writings, Zeltits said Rising Sun was a nationalist movement rather than a political party, with an aim of “mobilizing the nation to defend its interests.” He advocated for Latvian nationalism, criticized neo-Marxism, and likened diversity, including religious diversity, to “cultural terrorism.” Zeltits encouraged members of Rising Sun to join the National Guard, leading news outlets and commentators on social media to express concern regarding the National Guard’s possible radicalization and intolerance towards minority religious groups.
Authorities continued to monitor Muslim community activities, according to the annual report of the security police, but made no interventions during the year. Muslim community members again said they did not feel pressured or singled out by authorities due to their faith.
According to a 2018 report by the NGO National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (NCSEJ), the latest available, the country made progress in assessing its role in the Holocaust, and senior government officials expressed their solidarity with the country’s Jewish victims and with Israel. NCSEJ, however, expressed concern over the country’s ultra-nationalist movement.
By year’s end, local Jewish community leaders and parliamentary sponsors did not reintroduce Holocaust property restitution legislation to satisfy the country’s commitments under the 2009 Terezin Declaration.
Public funding continued to support Holocaust education in schools.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, events commemorating the Holocaust were smaller than in previous years. President Egils Levits and other senior government officials, including Speaker of the Parliament Inara Murniece, Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins, and Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, attended Holocaust memorial events, including International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Latvian Holocaust Memorial Day, and the Rumbula Forest Massacre commemoration. Officials held a smaller, socially distanced public event in July to commemorate the 1941 burning of the Great Choral Synagogue with victims inside. The President, Speaker of Parliament, and Prime Minister participated in the silent vigil and flower-laying ceremony at the memorial stone of the victims of the Holocaust.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Riga Jewish Community executive director Gita Umanovska and Jews of Latvia Museum director Ilya Lensky said anti-Semitic hate speech that appeared during the year was mostly in the form of posts on social media and comments in news articles, although no one reported such incidents to the police. Sources stated the level of online anti-Semitic hate speech appeared anecdotally to be similar to that of previous years. In June, one online commenter wrote, “Who would pay for the millions of executed people in USSR – most of the executors were Jews and their crossbreeds.” In June, another online commenter wrote, “The Jews even earn using the Holocaust. Everyone knows – Zionism is the root of Nazism and Fascism.”
Some hate speech characterized as racist or anti-Muslim appeared on social media and the internet during the year, mostly in individual posts and comments in news articles. For example, in February, one site had the comment, “Ragheads will rarely go and work in a normal job; these Pakistani kebabs think only about how to deceive Christians, who only bow in front of ragheads.”
In response to COVID-19 restrictions, most of the annual March 16 commemorations of the Latvian Legionnaires, who fought in German Waffen-SS units against the Soviet Army in World War II, were canceled. Organizers converted the annual memorial march into a wreath-laying event. As in recent years, turnout continued to decline; however, at least one parliamentarian, Janis Iesalnieks from the NA, attended and posted a picture of the event on social media. According to media and police reports, the event has received less attention each year and was generally viewed as a commemoration of national identity and remembrance of those who fought for independence, rather than as a glorification of Nazism. NA chairman Raivis Dzintars aired a short film on television portraying Legionnaire actions as defending the country and made no mention of Nazis.
On November 30, approximately 200 persons lit thousands of candles at the Freedom Monument in Riga in memory of the approximately 30,000 Jews killed in the Rumbula Forest by the Nazis in 1941. A separate Rumbula Forest memorial service on November 30 was well attended, including by President Levits’s chief of staff, Andris Teikmanis, members of the diplomatic corps, leaders in the Jewish community, and religious leaders.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In October, the Secretary of State wrote Foreign Minister Rinkevics to reiterate the importance of resolving the country’s obligations under the 2009 Terezin Declaration.
The Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged in regular discussions with senior government officials, including at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the MOJ, the Office of the Ombudsman, and with members of parliament, on the importance of restoring property expropriated by Soviets and Nazis to the Jewish community by passing a restitution bill satisfying the country’s commitments under the Terezin Declaration.
Embassy staff met with leaders of the Lutheran Church, as well as representatives from the Jewish and Muslim communities, to discuss religious tolerance and acceptance in the country. Staff also met with the MARTA Center, which works with immigrant women, including those who might be at risk of victimization as a result of their religious beliefs. Embassy staff also engaged representatives of Safe House, which assists with transition support and education for immigrants and refugees, many of whom are of minority faiths.
In response to COVID-19 restrictions, the embassy extended a grant until 2021 to fund a project with the Zanis Lipke Memorial Museum to support an exhibit, originally scheduled to take place during the year, with paintings and diary fragments of a Latvian-born Jewish-American artist, focusing on his experience surviving the Holocaust in the country and his later life in a New York City Latvian enclave.