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2008 Report on International Religious Freedom - Iceland

Publisher United States Department of State
Author Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Publication Date 19 September 2008
Cite as United States Department of State, 2008 Report on International Religious Freedom - Iceland, 19 September 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/48d5cbdb6b.html [accessed 21 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion.

The Government generally respected religious freedom in practice; however, the state financially supports and promotes Lutheranism as the country's official religion. There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the period covered by this report. The Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is the state church, enjoys some advantages not available to other religious groups and provides social services regardless of creed.

There were isolated reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 39,600 square miles and a population of 300,000. Reykjavik and its environs are home to approximately 60 percent of the population.

According to the National Statistical Bureau, 252,461 persons (81 percent of the population) are members of the state Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC). In 2007, 1,685 individuals resigned from the church, as against 201 new registrants other than infants baptized. Many of those who resigned joined one of the organizationally and financially independent Lutheran Free Churches, which has a total membership of 15,290 (4.9 percent of the population). A total of 16,883 persons (5.4 percent) are members of 26 other small recognized and registered religious organizations ranging from the Roman Catholic Church (7,977 members) to the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (4 members). There are 19,524 individuals (6.2 percent) who belong to other or unspecified religious organizations and 8,714 (2.8 percent) who are not members of any religious organization. There are also religions, such as Judaism, that have been practiced in the country for years but whose members have never requested official recognition. The National Statistical Bureau does not keep track of Jewish community numbers, and there is no synagogue or Jewish cultural center; however, up to 60 persons attend occasional Jewish events and activities organized by a few Jewish immigrants.

Although the majority of citizens use traditional Lutheran rituals to mark events such as baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals, most Lutherans do not regularly attend Sunday services.

The number of foreigners receiving residence permits increased significantly during the past several years. In direct relation to the increase in foreigners (itinerant workers, immigrants, and refugees), the number of religious organizations significantly increased. Foreigners constitute an estimated 80 percent of the Roman Catholic population. The Roman Catholic Church in Iceland estimated that registered totals may only capture half of the actual number of Catholics in the country. The Reykjavik Catholic Church holds one weekly English-language service, and a number of Poles, Filipinos, and Lithuanians attend. Services are also conducted in other languages in other Catholic churches and chapels in other areas. A growing number of Poles, served by four Polish priests, live in the country, working in the fishing and shipbuilding industries. In addition to Icelandic priests, the Catholic Church employs priests from Argentina, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom. Since there are few Catholic churches outside of Reykjavik, Lutheran ministers regularly lend their churches to Catholic priests so that they can conduct Masses for members in rural areas.

The Association of Muslims in Iceland (Felag Muslima a Islandi), founded in 1997, has 371 members (out of approximately 800 to 1,000 Muslims living in the country, according to the association). Muslims are concentrated in the capital area (although there are a number of Kosovar Muslim refugees in the small northern town of Dalvik). Since 2002 the community has had its own house of worship, with daily prayer nights and weekly Friday prayers that attract a core group of approximately 30-50 individuals.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion. The official state religion is Lutheranism.

The Constitution provides all persons the right to form religious associations and to practice religion in accordance with their personal beliefs. However, it also bans teaching or practices harmful to good morals or public order.

Article 62 of the Constitution establishes the Evangelical Lutheran Church as the state church and pledges the state's support and protection. Parliament has the power to pass a law to change this article. Although polls show that the majority of citizens favor the concept of separation of church and state, most probably would not support the change if it meant closing Lutheran churches because of lack of funding. According to the State Church Bishop's Office, nine out of ten children in the country are baptized in their first year, more than 90 percent of adolescents are confirmed, 75 percent of the total population is married in the church, and 99 percent are buried with church ceremonies. Although few citizens regularly attend services, they see the Lutheran religion as part of their culture and view the closing of a church as losing a part of their heritage. Sidmennt, the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association, which has approximately 300 members, strongly supports legislation to separate church and state.

The state directly pays the salaries of the 139 ministers in the state church, and these ministers are considered public servants under the Ministry of Judicial and Ecclesiastical Affairs. These ministers counsel persons of all faiths and offer ecumenical services for marriages and funerals. In March 2007 Parliament passed a bill amending the law on the state church, under which the Government is supposed to relinquish vicarages – both land and residences – to the state church for ownership. This will require increased annual funding for the state church to cover maintenance expenses. The new law also states that the Lutheran Bishop of Iceland shall appoint ministers, a power previously granted to the Minister of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs. The state operates a network of Lutheran parish churches throughout the country. In new housing areas, land automatically is set aside for the construction of a parish church to serve the neighborhood. State radio broadcasts worship services every Sunday morning and daily devotions morning and night, contributing to state Lutheran domination of religion-oriented broadcasting.

The General Penal Code protects religious practice by establishing fines and imprisonment for up to three months for those who publicly deride or belittle the religious doctrines or worship of a lawful religious association active in the country.

The Government observes Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Whit Monday, Christmas Eve (afternoon only), Christmas Day, and Boxing Day as national holidays.

A 1999 law sets specific conditions and procedures that religious organizations must follow to gain state subsidies. All taxpayers 16 years of age and older must pay a church tax of approximately $138 (ISK 10,344) a year. Individuals may direct their church tax payments to any of the religious groups officially registered and recognized by the state. For persons who are not registered as belonging to a religious organization, or who belong to one that is not registered, the tax payment goes to the University of Iceland, a secular institution. Atheists have objected to having their fees go to the university, asserting that this is inconsistent with the constitutional right of freedom of association.

During the period covered by this report, the Government gave the state church approximately $66.9 million (ISK 5.02 billion). Of that amount, the church tax funded $26.5 million (ISK 1.99 billion), the cemetery tax $10.9 million (ISK 820 million), and general revenues $29.5 million (ISK 2.21 billion). The state church operates all cemeteries, and the money from the cemetery tax must be used solely for this purpose. All recognized religious denominations have equal access to the country's cemeteries. The church tax also provided $3.1 million (ISK 234 million) to the other recognized religious groups and $2.7 million (ISK 199 million) to the University of Iceland.

In January 2006 the Icelandic Pagan Association (Asatuarfelagith) sued the Ministry of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs and the Ministry of Finance to receive funding proportional to its membership from monies currently made available only to the state church. These funds supplement the income that the national church receives from church taxes, which the plaintiff asserted favors state Lutheranism in violation of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In October 2007 the Supreme Court upheld a November 2006 verdict of the Reykjavik District Court rejecting the Icelandic Pagan Association's request. The Pagan Association announced its intent to appeal to the European Court of Justice but had not filed an appeal by the end of the reporting period.

The Ministry of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs handles applications for recognition and registration of religious organizations. The law provides for a three-member panel consisting of a theologian, a lawyer, and a social scientist to review the application. To register, a religious organization must "practice a creed or religion that can be linked to the religions of humankind that have historical or cultural roots ... be well established ... be active and stable ... have a core group of members who regularly practice the religion in compliance with its teachings and should pay church taxes ... " All registered religious organizations are required to submit an annual report to the Ministry describing the organization's operations over the past year. The law also specifies that the leader of a religious organization must be at least 25 years old and pay taxes in the country. No restrictions or requirements are placed on unregistered religious organizations, which have the same rights as other groups in society. During the reporting period, two groups, Soka Gakkai International and The New Avalon Center, applied to register as religious organizations. The application by Soka Gakkai International was approved in April 2008, but the application by The New Avalon Center remained under review at the end of the reporting period. In the previous year, one organization had its application denied on grounds of the church not being sufficiently well-established. The group had not reapplied by the end of the reporting period. Two other organizations whose applications were denied on the same grounds in 2006-07 did not renew their applications during the reporting period.

The law confirms that parents control the religious affiliation of their children until the children reach the age of 16. However, the Children's Act requires that parents consult their children about any changes in the children's affiliation after the age of 12, and such changes require the requesting children's signatures. In the absence of specific instructions to the contrary, children at birth are registered as having the same religious affiliation as their mother.

Virtually all schools are public schools. In May 2008 the Althingi passed a new law (No. 285/2008) regarding compulsory curriculum in schools grades 1-10 (ages 6-15). The new law requires instruction in theology in grades 1-10 and mandates that general teaching practices be shaped by "the Christian heritage of Icelandic culture, equality, responsibility, concern, tolerance, and respect for human value" in place of the previous law's mention of "Christian ethics."

The precise content of this instruction can vary, and some observers have claimed that religious indoctrination can take place, as the curriculum is not rigid and teachers often are given wide latitude in the classroom. Some teachers place greater emphasis on ethical and philosophical issues than on specifically religious instruction. Lessons on non-Christian religions are part of the curriculum, but teachers focus mostly on Christianity. On August 1, 2007 a new compulsory curriculum took effect for Christianity, ethics, and theology – now referred to in the law as theology or religious studies – which suggested a more multicultural and intellectual approach to religious education and a greater emphasis on teaching a variety of beliefs. In secondary schools, theology continued to be taught under the rubric of "community studies" along with sociology, philosophy, and history.

In fall 2007 the town of Gardabaer's compulsory schools (grades 1-10) discontinued a state-church-run pastoral care program for students that it had begun using the previous fall. The towns of Alftanes and Mosfellsbaer continued to use the program, which was introduced in those towns in 2006 and 1999, respectively. The Ethical Humanist Association Sidmennt and representatives from nonstate religious organizations continued their public criticism of the program's use in public schools, claiming that the pastoral care program contained aspects of religious indoctrination. Those who supported the program stated that it was merely a means for students to talk about their feelings with a minister or a deacon and noted that participation in the program was not mandatory. A minority of students took advantage of the service.

Students may be exempted from Christianity classes. The law provides the Minister of Education with the authority to exempt pupils from instruction in compulsory subjects such as Christianity. In practice, individual school authorities issue exemptions informally. There is no obligation for school authorities to offer other religious or secular instruction in place of Christianity classes. Some observers have noted that this discourages students or their parents from requesting such exemptions and may isolate students who seek exemptions or put them at risk of bullying in schools.

The Government does not actively promote interfaith understanding. The Government does not sponsor programs or official church-government councils to coordinate interfaith dialogue, but many church groups sponsor meetings between the leaders of various religious organizations. A Japanese-born minister of the state church has been designated to serve immigrant communities and help recent arrivals of all religious groups integrate into society.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government generally respected religious freedom in practice. There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the period covered by this report.

In January 2008 the City of Reykjavik awarded a plot of land to the Pagan Society of Iceland to build a place of worship. This followed the signature of a declaration of intent in November 2006.

There was no change during the reporting period regarding the status of a pending application for land to build a mosque, originally filed with the City of Reykjavik in 2000. Some observers felt that political instability on the Reykjavik City Council effectively forestalled progress during the reporting period. However, in previous years the city cited competing claims for the land in question and expressed concern that tensions could arise if Muslims and Orthodox Christians were to erect adjacent facilities, as they had been looking at the same site. While in 2005 and prior years there were acknowledged tensions, occasionally leading to arguments between Reykjavik's small Muslim Kosovar and Orthodox Serb communities, religious leaders told authorities they had no qualms about worshipping in close proximity. Some observers thought that prejudice was behind the delay in approval, since other groups' applications for similar plots made swifter progress during that time.

There was no movement by the City of Reykjavik to finalize a land use plan to allow the Russian Orthodox Church to begin construction of a new church on land allocated to the church in 2006. However, the earlier statement of intent fell short of full authorization to build a house of worship and was contingent on approval of a detailed land use plan. Some observers attributed the delay to frequent majority coalition changes on the Reykjavik City Council.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the country.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Abuses and Discrimination

There were isolated reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. If members of religious minorities face discrimination, it is indirect in nature, taking the form of prejudice and lack of interfaith or intercultural understanding. The country has a small, close-knit, homogenous society that closely guards its culture and is not accustomed to accommodating outsiders. Although most citizens are not active members of the state church, Lutheranism remains an important part of the country's cultural identity.

There were reports of isolated incidents where individuals harassed Muslim women by removing their headscarves on the streets of Reykjavik.

Muslims in the country, seconded by independent observers, expressed concern that Omega, a Christian television station, broadcast distorted, negative coverage of Muslims and Islam. The station's broadcast area included approximately 75 percent of the country's population. In April 2008 the administrators of the country's largest privately-owned blog site closed down a controversial blog, whose author had been espousing anti-Islamic views.

In May 2005 the national church for the first time organized an interfaith meeting of the leaders of major registered religious groups (defined as those with 150 or more members). In November 2006 members established a permanent Forum for Interfaith Dialogue and Cooperation that would foster dialogue and strengthen links between religious groups and life-stance organizations. The forum is open to all registered religious organizations.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. The U.S. Embassy also maintains a regular dialogue on religious freedom issues with the leaders of various religious groups and nongovernmental organizations. Among other activities, in February 2008 the Embassy sponsored a speaking tour by an American imam to discuss Muslim life in the United States and promote interfaith dialogue and tolerance.

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