Legal framework on freedom of religion and actual application
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and conscience, which includes the right to profess and practise a religion, to express one’s beliefs and to belong to – or not belong – to a religious community.1 It prohibits discrimination based on religion.2 Complaints of discrimination can be made to the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman.3
The Criminal Code of Finland prohibits “breach of the sanctity of religion”, including blasphemy.4
The Freedom of Religion Act governs recognition of religious communities and recognised communities are eligible for public funds. Registered religious communities include the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELC), the Orthodox Church of Finland, and other communities such as the Catholic Church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Evangelical Free Church, and the Seventh-Day Adventists. Religion can be practised without registration with the government.5
The ELC has a special status as an institution under public law. 6 Members of the ELC or Orthodox Church must pay a church tax or formally terminate their memberships. The ELC and Orthodox Church must maintain cemeteries and may register births, marriages, and deaths for the state.7
Students belonging to a recognised religious community are given religious education in accordance with their religions, while others are taught ethics. The singing of traditional hymns at school celebrations and at Christmas is not considered the practice of religion and is therefore permitted to preserve Finnish culture. There are a small number of private religious schools.8
There are legal restrictions on animal slaughter, but the law allows some religious slaughter, provided the animals are killed and stunned simultaneously. Leaders of the Muslim and Jewish communities continue to oppose restrictions.9
While circumcision of boys is legal, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health guidelines discourage it and the government does not fund the procedure. The guidelines state that the procedure should only be performed by physicians, that the child’s parents be advised of risks, and that it should not performed on boys old enough to understand without their consent. Jewish and Muslim communities have disagreed with the guidelines and talks with the government continued.10
Conscientious objection to military service for religious reasons is permitted, provided that objectors complete alternative civilian service. Failure to serve can result in imprisonment. Only Jehovah’s Witnesses are exempt from both military and civilian service.11
With respect to reports of incidents relating to religious minorities, it should be noted that, because ethnicity and religion are often closely linked, it might be difficult to determine whether an incident is motivated by racism, xenophobia, or religious intolerance.
The 2016 Hate Crime Reporting database provides official figures for 29 crimes motivated by anti-Christian bias (14 physical assaults, 12 threats/threatening behaviour, two incidents of damage to property, and one unspecified).12
The Temppeliaukio Church in the centre of Helsinki was the target of a foiled terrorist attack in June 2017. As a result, concrete barriers were erected to protect the church.13
The Hate Crime database provides official figures of 10 crimes motivated by anti-Semitism (1 physical assault, 6 threats/threatening behaviour, and 3 damage to property).14
In November 2017 a Finnish court disbanded the Nordic Resistance Movement (PVL), a group linked to violent racist activities, and ruled that it was not entitled to freedom of speech protections because of its actions.15 The PVL had made statements on its homepage supporting religiously-motivated violence and posted a Holocaust denial story.16
The Jewish Community of Helsinki launched a campaign to raise €15,000 in 48 hours in November 2017 to finance its security needs, which are €200,000 annually.17
According to the Hate Crime database, 67 crimes were motivated by anti-Muslim bias (18 physical assaults, 42 threats/threatening behaviour, 4 incidents of damage to property, and 3 unspecified).18
Members of Suomi Ensin (Finland First) demonstrated against an Eid celebration at a mall in Helsinki in July 2016. Counter-demonstrators overwhelmed the protest with shouts of ‘no to racism’.19
In November 2016, the former chairman of the Finns Party Youth wing was charged with ethnic agitation and breach of the sanctity of religion for a series of anti-Muslim posts on Facebook.20 Several other Finns Party officials were also convicted of offenses relating to anti-Muslim incitement.21
Plans to build a ‘Grand Mosque’ in Helsinki were put on hold in December 2017 after the city’s Urban Development Board rejected the bid for land. As a result, the developers withdrew the project for consideration by the city council. The project had been controversial from the beginning, with concerns about funding by Bahrain’s Islamic Foundation and whether it would be run by Finnish Muslims or foreign imams.22
Prospects for freedom of religion
It appears that there were no significant new or increased governmental restrictions on religious freedom during the period under review. However, there appears to be an increased risk of societal intolerance against minority religions fuelled by anti-immigration sentiments in Finland.
Endnotes / Sources
1 Finland’s Constitution of 1999 with Amendments through 2011, Chapter 2, Section 11, constituteproject.org, https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Finland_2011.pdf?lang=en, (accessed 24th February 2018).
2 Ibid, Chapter 2, Section 6.
3 Office of the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman, Customer Service, Ministry of Justice (Finland), https://www.syrjinta.fi/web/en/customer-service, (accessed 24th February 2018).
4 Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, ‘Finland, International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, U.S. State Department, https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm#wrapper, (accessed 24th February 2018).
5 ‘Freedom of religion’, Religious Affairs, Ministry of Education and Culture, http://minedu.fi/en/freedom-of-religion, (accessed 24th February 2018).
7 Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, op. cit.
8 ‘Religious Communities’, Religious Affairs, Ministry of Education and Culture, http://minedu.fi/en/religious-communities, (accessed 24th February 2018).
9 Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, op. cit.
12 Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, 2016 Hate Crime Reporting – Finland, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, http://hatecrime.osce.org/finland, (accessed 18th February 2018).
13 ‘Finnish police investigated terror threat on Sunday in Helsinki’, Reuters, 19th June 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-finland-security/finnish-police-investigated-terror-threat-on-sunday-in-helsinki-idUSKBN19A2SN, (accessed 2nd February 2018).
14 Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, op. cit.
15 ‘Finnish court bans Neo-Nazi movement’, Yle Uutiset, 30th November 2016, https://yle.fi/uutiset/osasto/news/finnish_court_bans_neo-nazi_movement/9956449, (accessed 2nd February 2018).
16 Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, op. cit.
17 E. Tessieri, ‘Jewish Community of Helsinki: Hate speech is directly responsible for the rise of anti-Semitism in Finland’, Migrant Tales, 28th November 2017, http://www.migranttales.net/jewish-community-of-helsinki-hate-speech-is-directly-responsible-for-the-rise-in-anti-semitism-in-finland/, (accessed 2nd February 2018).
18 Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, op. cit.
19 T. Oksanen, ‘Demonstration vid köpcentret It is – polisen lugnade läget’, YLE, 6th July 2016, https://svenska.yle.fi/artikel/2016/07/06/demonstration-vid-kopcentret-itis-polisen-lugnade-laget, (accessed 2nd February 2018).
20 A. Teivainen, ‘Finns Party’s Tynkkynen charged with ethnic agitation’, Helsinki Times, 14th November 2016, http://www.helsinkitimes.fi/finland/finland-news/domestic/14351-finns-party-s-tynkkynen-charged-with-ethnic-agitation.html, (accessed 2nd February 2018).
21 ‘Three Finns Party politicians in court over online hate speech’, Yle Uutiset, 4th January 2017, https://yle.fi/uutiset/osasto/news/three_finns_party_politicians_in_court_over_online_hate_speech/9388039, (accessed 2nd February 2018).
22 ‘Mirage: Why Helsinki’s “Grand Mosque” Disappeared’, News Now Finland, 18th December 2017, http://newsnowfinland.fi/finland-international/mirage-why-helsinkis-grand-mosque-disappeared, (accessed 2nd February 2018).