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U.S. Department of State
Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999

Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC, September 9, 1999


Section I. Freedom of Religion

The law provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice. There are two state churches, the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Orthodox Church. All citizens who belong to one of these state churches pay, as part of their income tax, a church tax. These church taxes are used to defray the costs of running the state churches. State churches also handle services, such as recording births, deaths, and marriages, which would normally be handled by municipalities and counties. Those who do not want to pay the tax must notify the tax office. Nontraditional religions are eligible for some tax relief (e.g., they may receive tax-free donations), provided they are registered with the Government as religious communities.

The majority of the population belongs to one of the two state churches. Eighty-six percent are members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and 1 percent belong to the Orthodox Church. Twelve percent of the population do not belong to any religious denomination.

The Ministry of Education has outlined requirements for recognition of religious communities. Religious groups should have at least 20 members. The purpose of the group should be the public practice of religion, and the activities of the community should be guided by a set of rules. Forty-five of these communities are currently recognized as churches. Nontraditional religious groups freely profess and propagate their beliefs. Such groups as Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) have been active in the country for decades. Other groups include the Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish communities. However, the number of persons belonging to non-state religions totals only 1 percent of the population.

The Government's procedures for recognizing religious communities are currently under review. A committee in the Ministry of Education is drafting amendments to the Law on Freedom of Religion, which has been described as technically unclear. The issue of recognizing Scientology as a religion sparked, in part, the current effort to review the Government's recognition procedures. This review process is aimed at clarifying the requirements for recognizing and registering religious communities. In December 1998, the Education Ministry turned down the application of the Finnish Association of Scientologists to be registered as a religious community. This was the first time in Finnish history that an applicant had been denied church status. The Scientologists' application had been pending for nearly 3 years while the Government awaited additional information that it had requested from the Association. The Association acknowledged that it had not followed up on the Government's request. The Education Ministry's decision can be appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court. The Scientologists have not yet done so but have indicated that they intend to begin the process anew and reapply for recognition as a church.

Instruction in the two state religions is incorporated into the curriculum of all public schools. However, students who are not members of the state churches may substitute general classes on religion and philosophy.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

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

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Active members of the state Lutheran Church attend services regularly, participate in small church group activities, and vote in parish elections. However, the majority of church members are only nominal members of the state church. The Lutheran Church's Information Center reports that in 1998 2 percent of members attended church services weekly, and 10 percent attended monthly. The average number of visits to church by church members was 1.7 during 1998. Participation in religious events occurs mainly during conventional occasions such as holidays, weddings, and funerals.

Some citizens are not very receptive to proselytizing by adherents of nontraditional faiths.

Nontraditional religious groups practice their religions freely. They are generally free from discrimination despite intolerant attitudes from some members of society.

There is an extremely small but growing immigrant population. Many immigrants are Somali Muslims. Immigrants do not encounter difficulties in practicing their faiths but they sometimes encounter discrimination grounded in xenophobia rather than in racism or religious intolerance.

Various government programs available through the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Labor focus on ending discrimination, including discrimination based on religion. Studies and research, integration programs, and recommendations for further incorporation of immigrants into society have been the focal points of these programs. Religion has not been especially highlighted but nevertheless remains a part of the Government's overall attempts to combat discrimination.

The state churches often speak out in support of the Finnish/Nordic welfare state model, couching social welfare values in religious or moral terms.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the overall context of the promotion of human rights. Embassy representatives periodically meet with representatives of the various religious communities to discuss religious freedom issues.

[End of Document]

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Revised last: 11-09-1999