3月13日至22日，我以联合国宗教或信仰自由问题特别报告员的身份对丹麦王国开展了一次访问。首先也是最重要的，我希望对政府尤其是外交部表示衷心感谢，它根据该国对联合国人权理事会所有专题特别程序的长期邀请，接受了我对丹麦的访问请求。我与人权事务高级专员办事处的同事在准备阶段和整个访问期间获得了政府的支持。我也十分感谢哥本哈根的联合国团队在许多方面为我提供了支持。我衷心感谢丹麦人权研究所（Danish Institute for Human Rights）很早就为这次访问提供了出色的后勤、组织和情报支持。同时，我还希望特别感谢来自中央政府和市级的对话者、议员们、最高法院成员、广泛的民间社会组织成员、学者、不同宗教社区的成员、土著人民代表和其他许多分享自己经历、评价和愿景的人。我们进行了许多生动而坦诚的讨论，讨论地点主要在哥本哈根，但也在奥尔胡斯（Aarhus）、哈泽斯莱乌（Harderslev）、欧登塞（Odense）和沃斯姆斯（Vollsmose）。所有的讨论都在友好、开放和轻松的气氛中进行。我在交流的过程中了解了很多，也着实十分感谢这次经历。
II. General observations on the legal framework and the societal climate
Freedom of religion or belief is a very tangible reality in Denmark. Everyone can openly say what they believe (or not believe), and people can also freely practise their religion or beliefs as individuals and in community with others and in private as well as in public. This positive assessment was shared by everyone with whom I could discuss over the last few days. Even those who expressed certain concerns or worries did not question the liberal atmosphere in Denmark in general, which indeed everyone acknowledges.
Freedom of religion is entrenched in the Danish Constitution whose Article 67 provides: “The citizens shall be entitled to form congregations for the worship of God in a manner consistent with their convictions, provided that nothing at variance with good morals or public order shall be taught or done.” This wording stems from 1849 and has not been changed in any of the subsequent amendments of the Constitution. When compared to modern formulations of freedom of religion or belief the wording of Article 67 it appears quite restrictive. While the focus of the positive provision narrowly lies on “worship of God”, the stipulation that “nothing at variance with good morals or public order shall be taught or done” sounds indeed far-reaching. In order to remain in line with international conventions that Denmark has ratified – in particular Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – Article 67 of the Constitution requires a broad interpretation of the scope of protection (i.e. beyond “worship of God”) and a cautious interpretation of the limitation clause. The practice of handling freedom of religion or belief issues in Denmark generally does reflect such a modern understanding.
Freedom of religion or belief has a strong community dimension, which explicitly comes to the fore in the constitutional right to “form congregations”. Religious communities do not need any registration or official permission for running their community affairs in Denmark. When wishing to obtain a legal personality status that would allow them to develop a sustainable community infrastructure – e.g. to purchase real estate for building houses of worship – they have various options. Those who prefer to keep a certain distance from the State can simply register as private associations, which is very easy. Those who wish to be entitled to celebrate marriages within their communities with immediate legal effect under the Danish marriage law (which is a secular law) need the status of a “recognized” or “acknowledged” religious community. Until 1970 such an act of “recognition” was given by a royal decree; since 1970 it is the Ministry for Ecclesiastical Affairs that grants an “acknowledgment”, the effects of which come close to those of the previous recognition procedure. One of the advantages connected to such a status is the possibility to deduct contributions from the annual tax declaration.
Currently around 160 communities from very diverse backgrounds enjoy such recognition or acknowledgement status. Cases of denial of acknowledgement have been rare; one example is the Church of Scientology whose applications were turned down in 1971 and 1984; another application by Scientology was withdrawn by the applicant itself in 2000. The criteria for granting acknowledgment are currently in a process of evaluation and reform led by a special Commission. This may also result in developing criteria for stripping religious communities of their once achieved status positions, which under the existing law is possible only in exceptional circumstances.
The three-tire system of different status positions culminates in the special rank occupied by the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Article 4 of the Constitution provides: “The Evangelical Lutheran Church shall be the Established Church of Denmark and as such, it shall be supported by the State.” This article belongs to the first part of the Constitution which defines the pillars on which the entire State rests: the Danish territory (Article 1), the constitutional monarchy (Article 2), the legislative, executive and judicial powers (Article 3) and finally the Established Church of Denmark (Article 4), usually referred to as “People’s Church” (Folkekirke).
The existing system is obviously non-egalitarian. While virtually no one questions the spirit of freedom that prevails in Denmark, including in the area of religion or belief, the principle of equality certainly does not govern the treatment of diverse religious communities. This contrasts starkly with the everyday culture in Denmark which indeed is markedly egalitarian. In the way people interact with each other, the Danish society may be one of the most egalitarian worldwide. School education promotes equal respect for all individuals, regardless of ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation, religion or other characteristics, and the anti-discrimination legislation aims to ensure that no one suffers unequal treatment, including on the basis of their religion or belief. However, while the principles of equality and non-discrimination chiefly apply to individuals, they obviously do not define the way in which the diversity of religious communities is normatively structured in Denmark. In some discussions, I heard this turned into a Danish rhyme: “frihed, men ikke lighed” (= freedom, but not egality). This non-egalitarian treatment has caused frustration felt by religious or belief-related minorities.
Moreover, the understanding of religion in Denmark very much focuses on the dimension of the person’s inner conviction. This seems to echo a Christian and more specifically Lutheran understanding of redemption through faith alone (“sola fide”). As a result, aspects of ritual or ceremonial religious practice are relegated into a mere external sphere, which allegedly has less relevance and is less worthy of recognition. From the perspective of non-Christian religions, this can become worrisome. Two issues have arisen in various talks over the last few days, namely, the ban on ritual slaughter without prior stunning of the animal, enacted in February 2014, and public demands to outlaw religiously motivated circumcision of male infants. Both issues shall be discussed in more detail in the subchapter dealing with concerns expressed by Jews and Muslims (see below). At the same time, they are worth highlighting already here as examples of a possibly too narrow understanding of what religion can entail and, accordingly, what freedom of religion as a human right should cover. In order to find out what actually matters religiously to various communities, the culture of trustful communication between State authorities and religious communities is crucial and should be further cherished.
Public demands for banning religiously motivated male circumcision may also be paradigmatic of a societal discourse that can become quite polarizing, in particular in social media. The experiences shared by members of religious minorities have confirmed my conjectures that many of the challenges with regard to religious freedom that people currently face in Denmark – like in other Western European countries – stem from a lack of meaningful and trustful communication within the society and a concomitant lack of mutual understanding. This often exacerbates negative stereotypes that members of religious minorities – in particular Muslims – suffer on a daily basis, with the result that they may feel increasingly alienated from the rest of society. In order to prevent cultural clashes around issues and promote mutual understanding it is imperative not only to encourage more interreligious dialogue in the traditional understanding, which typically focusses on the “classical” monotheistic religions, but also to address and include those growing parts of the society which may describe themselves as non-believers or “religiously unmusical”.
III. The special status and role of the Folkekirke
In European societies any still existing structures of an official or established church are typically perceived as a slightly anachronistic relict of the past. Scandinavian countries, too, have recently seen processes of disestablishment with the purpose of creating more autonomy for the Lutheran Evangelical Church, which has had an overwhelmingly strong impact on the history and culture of all of the Nordic countries. In 2000, Sweden finally disestablished the Church, and in Norway a similar process, which started three years ago, is supposed to lead to a formal separation of Church and State in 2017.
The situation in Denmark is markedly different. In spite of very low rates of actual church attendance and a continuously declining membership, which currently still lies around 80 percent of the population, the special status of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as the National Church (Folkekirke), as entrenched in Article 4 of the Constitution, remains largely unchallenged. The ongoing strong role of the Folkekirke with broad membership in a society that has become one of the most secularized worldwide presents a puzzle. It may become somewhat less paradoxical if we assume that for many people their appreciation of the Folkekirke may rest more on its role as an element of Danish cultural identity and less its function as an institution of faith in the narrow sense. Be that as it may, calls for a formal separation between State and Church, albeit sometimes voiced, have never received much public attention, let alone broad political support, and court cases brought against the existing system have been both rare and unsuccessful.
Apparently, the Danish population generally appreciates the Folkekirke within a positive narrative of national identity, liberalization and democratization. Within that narrative of State and Church, Nikolai Fredrik Severin Grundtvig (1783-1872), a philosopher, theologian, poet, educationalist and liberal politician, plays an outstanding role. Indeed, it seems that no one can capture the modern culture of Denmark and the self-understanding of the society and the Church without considering Grundtvig’s ongoing influence. According to Grundtvig, the State should respectfully serve the Church and keep it open for a broad participation of the people, which mainly takes place at the parish level. Without abolishing the clerical hierarchy within the Church culminating in the ten Bishops of the Folkekirke, the State is supposed to ensure that Church affairs remain in line with the general democratic development of the country and to facilitate active participation of the people in decision-making procedures, especially at the parish level. The idea seems to be that the democratic State legitimized by the Danish people has the mandate to uphold the inclusive nature of the Danish Folkekirke against possible tendencies of sectarian closure.
A main factor that might have enabled the survival of the Folkekirke into the 21st century is the culture of broad consultation, which characterizes the Danish way of handling political and societal affairs in general. While the formal responsibility for church affairs rests with the State – i.e. Parliament and the Ministry for Ecclesiastical Affairs – theological authorities, in particular the Bishops as well as the representation of parishes have generally been consulted before taking decisions that affect the Church.
In keeping with Article 4 of the Constitution, the Folkekirke receives financial support directly from the State budget. While the bulk of the Folkekirke’s budget rests on the Church tax which is paid only by members of the Church, around 14 percent of the Church’s annual resources stem from the general State budget to which members and non-members contribute alike. The assumption underlying this regulation is that tax payers should finance certain public functions, which the Church undertakes for the society as a whole, including birth registrations and the management of cemeteries almost all of which are owned by the Church. The Church also celebrates marriages, which have direct legal effect under the Danish (secular) marriage law. As already mentioned, however, the right to conduct legally valid marriage ceremonies is not a privilege of the Folkekirke only; it is an option for all those religious communities which enjoy the status as a “recognized” or “acknowledged” community.
While the status of the Folkekirke receives broad approval by the population and across the political party spectrum, discussions have taken place both within the political arena and within the Church itself. Those defending the existing system of an Established Church in politics may do so from different motives. Whereas more conservative leaning people may wish to preserve the religious and cultural identity of the country, not least in the context of immigration and pluralization, people with more liberal or socialist views may appreciate the structure of the Folkekirke as an interesting model to use State oversight for encouraging liberal and democratic developments within the Church. Paradoxically, some even see the State-controlled Lutheran Folkekirke as a guarantor of the “secular” nature of the State – in keeping with Luther’s clear conceptual separation between spiritual and temporal authorities as laid down in his doctrine of the “two regiments”. However, I have also met with politicians, including members of parliament, who criticize the existing involvement of the State in Church affairs as an irregularity, which they think should be overcome in the long run. Reportedly, such critical views are more widespread among the younger generation of politicians in various political parties.
The fact that Denmark as a whole has become more religiously pluralistic – due to immigration, diversification, secularization and other factors – can play into the hands of both sides. Those in favour of upholding the existing structure may all the more appreciate the Folkekirke as an anchor of stability, identity and a model for preventing sectarian radicalization, while those advocating for a reform may argue that in an increasingly pluralistic society the special status of the Folkekirke gives rise to new issues of fairness, equality and non-discrimination, which will more and more erode the plausibility of a system of one Established Church. This latter position has been regularly voiced by members of religious minorities.
Similar discussions take place also within the Folkekirke itself. In the eyes of reform advocates, a formally enshrined autonomy especially on theological issues – for instance, in the shape of a Church Council – would enhance the credibility of the Church, whose core function should rest on teaching, preaching and practising Christianity instead of acting as broad public service institution. According to one reading of Lutheran theology, amalgamating Christian teaching with national and cultural identity might even ruin any authentic faith. Others in turn appreciate the broad outreach of the Folkekirke beyond the shrinking circle of regularly practising Christians as an opportunity – in traditional religious language: a calling – which the Church should not abandon. While such different positions on establishment or disestablishment do exist within the Church, they do not seem to create much polarization or divisiveness though. Those working in the Church, including members of the clergy, generally weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the conflicting positions in a rather relaxed manner.
In this context, some interlocutors from the Church have highlighted the potential of the Folkekirke to serve as a bridge between religious minorities and those parts of the society who generally have little understanding for religious concerns and needs, but nonetheless remain in touch with the Church. This bridge-building function may become even more important in a situation in which the presence of Islam in Denmark has caused feelings of unease and even fear among large parts of the society. I have seen impressive examples in which such the bridge-building function of the Folkekirke has actually been used to prevent or ease possible tensions between religious minorities, in particular Islam, and the mainstream society.
IV. The situation of various religious and belief-related minorities
- The Jewish Community of Denmark
Although only around 7,000 Jews live in Denmark, the Jewish Community of Denmark enjoys broad appreciation as an old-established component of the Danish society, which furthermore fits into a positive historic narrative. Jews themselves also feel much at home in Denmark. They received a formal recognition as early as in 1682 and have enjoyed equal civil rights since 1814. During the Nazi occupation of Denmark, the majority the Jews living in Denmark could be rescued as a result of coordinated efforts taken by many Danes. After the killing of a Jewish security guard in February 2015, Jewish people experienced much solidarity in the society and felt that the narrative of the Danish people protecting the Jews was reinstated in a powerful and reassuring way.
Nevertheless, members of the Jewish Community of Denmark also expressed concerns and a general feeling that the space for their religious practice has been shrinking in recent years. One example is the ban on ritual slaughter without prior stunning of the animal, enacted in February 2014. In practice, this does not cause serious problems, since anyone can still import kosher meat – the same is true for Muslims who import halal meat. At a symbolic level, however, the Jewish Community does feel affected, especially since the prohibition was imposed without prior consultation; it came to them as an unpleasant surprise. Dialogue has however been established afterwards. The prohibition now valid in Denmark coincides with similar measures taken in some other European countries as well, which means that practical problems of getting kosher food may well arise in the near future – or this is what many fear.
The by far biggest worry articulated by representatives of the Jewish Community of Denmark, however, stems from public demands for outlawing religiously motivated circumcision of male infants. Those who brought up this concern to me did not expect that the State would actually impose a formal prohibition of religiously motivated circumcision of boys, although they did not rule out that possibility entirely. Worldwide, no State currently forbids this practice in general, and the likelihood that Denmark would actually take such a step seems somewhat remote. However, public demands to outlaw circumcision of boys have already changed the societal atmosphere very much. According to opinion polls, a broad majority of the Danish population would favour a ban on circumcision of underage boys, and organizations of medical doctors in Denmark, child rights organizations as well as the NGO “Intact” have been very vocal demanding legislative action in this direction. For most of the religiously practicing Jews as well as Muslims that would have far-reaching consequences. While Muslims, too, widely practise male circumcision and see it as an essential part of their religious identity, the significance for Jews may be even higher. Although there have always been discussion also within the Jewish Community itself – certainly since the 19th century – and although some Jewish parents – usually non-religious, “secularized” Jews – decide against circumcising their boys, the overwhelming majority of religiously practicing Jews worldwide understand the circumcision of new-born boys as a cornerstone of their Jewish identity. Through the practice of circumcision they see themselves in continuity with their forefathers throughout three millennia. This is the by far predominant view shared by religious Jews across the various orthodox, conservative and liberal currents within Judaism. For many Jews, I was told, a ban of circumcision in a country would signal no less that they cannot stay in that country.
The effect of the current discussion, which in particular in social media can assume a quite aggressive tone, is very much felt. One member of the Jewish Community of Denmark told me that they are currently expecting another child. When it became clear that it would be a girl, they felt much relief, since this would spare them many “questioning looks” in their neighbourhood and professional environment. This example illustrates that public calls for prohibiting circumcision, apart from the question of whether a ban will ever become reality, do have their effects on the Jewish Community of Denmark already now. This is similarly true for Muslims in Denmark, who have to struggle with many other challenges, too.
The issue of circumcision is complex and has many medical, psychological, cultural and religious facets. Controversies exist concerning all these different aspects of the phenomenon. Within the human rights community, too, the circumcision of underage boys has led to an ongoing polarization1. It is thus natural that this issue also becomes a topic of public debates in a democratic country, not only in Denmark, but in all Scandinavian countries and beyond. However, it is all the more important that those engaging in public debates be aware of the delicacy of the theme and how deeply it affects many Jews and Muslims in their religious identities. The Government has a responsibility to reassure the Jewish Community, also through clear public statement, that their existence and future in Denmark is secured beyond any doubt.
Another topic raised by the Jewish Community of Denmark is the increasing hostility which Jews experience whenever the situation in the Middle East escalates, such as during the Gaza war in the summer 2014. Much of that hostility stems from immigrants with family roots in the Middle East, many of whom are Muslims.
- Muslim groups
Although Muslims in Denmark share some of the problems articulated by the Jewish Community, their situation is generally very different. Like in some other Western European countries, Islam in Denmark is typically perceived as a new religious reality mainly connected with various waves of immigration in the late 20th and early 21st century.
In the absence of official statistical data, estimates of the numbers of Muslims living in Denmark are difficult, but usually run up to five percent of the population. Without any doubt, Islam constitutes the second largest religion in Denmark, after Christianity. A number of Muslim organizations have obtained the status of the acknowledged religious community, which inter alia allows them to celebrate marriages with legal effect under the Danish law. Among the more than 100 mosques there are a handful of “visible” mosques with a dome and a minaret, but projects of constructing new mosques are underway. The construction of new houses of worship generally signals that a religious community feels at home in the country and wishes to establish their existence in a permanent and visible manner. In that sense it could well count as a symbol of integration (although it is factually not always appreciated as such). Another very important symbolic step towards consolidating religious presence, throughout the generations, is the establishment of cemeteries. In various municipalities the cemeteries formally owned by the Folkekirke have accommodated special sites for Muslims graves. On top of that, one Muslim cemetery was recently established.
All the Muslims I met here in Denmark emphasized that they can generally practise their religious freely and without facing major obstacles. Meanwhile, more and more people have apparently grown accustomed to seeing women wearing a headscarf, although the hijab can still cause controversies when worn in certain professional settings or in rural areas. And yet, there seems to be a widespread perception that Islam and “Danishness” do not easily – if at all – fit together. Public calls for Muslims to “integrate” into the Danish society can thus assume an ambivalent meaning. On the one hand, integration is a necessary requirement in any society. In that sense it is an obvious expectation, finally addressed to everyone. On the other hand, integration can also be a proxy for expectations of a seamless assimilation of minorities into the given structures of a society. This latter understanding seems to be widespread. Even Muslims who speak Danish as their first language, successfully graduated within the Danish education system and never came into any conflict with the law have occasionally been exposed to demands of “more integration”. This calls for an explanation. Maybe one reason is the continued predominance of a Christian – more precisely: Lutheran – understanding of religion as mainly a matter of the heart, which generally should not become “too visible”, unless it manifests itself as “culture”, roughly analogously to the largely cultural role of the Folkekirke.
The permanent insistence on more integration mainly addressed to Muslims, in conjunction with a nationalist political rhetoric highlighting “Danishness” and “Christian values”, sends a very ambiguous message to Muslims and may cause feelings of alienation and frustration. One small example is recent regulations by one municipality that some canteens in public institutions, including kindergartens and schools, have to offer pork – on an equal footing with other foods. While those who do not wish to eat pork will have access to alternative menus, this symbolically elevates pork-eating into an essential part of Danish identity.
The main concern expressed by all members of Muslim communities with whom I had a chance to discuss is the negative perception of Islam, which is often associated with backwardness, extremism, violence or even terrorism. In this context, none of the Muslim interlocutors denied that extremist tendencies do exist in the country and that they must be openly and frankly addressed. However, the prevailing feeling among Muslims seems to be that extremist manifestations of Islam do not only receive disproportionate attention in public and political discussions; they furthermore get a privileged interpretation as allegedly representing “the real Islam”. In other words, radical voices always seem to enjoy a sort of “authenticity benefit” in the sense that they confirm people’s negative expectations thereby reinforcing an already existing fear of Islam in large parts of the society. By contrast, moderate or liberal views expressed by Muslims are often seen as merely “exceptional” and thus much less, if at all, “authentically” Islamic. Liberal Muslims have even heard strange compliments that by dint of their liberal positions they have ceased to be “real” Muslims.
Muslims interlocutors expressed their dismay at the swift public reactions by some politicians after a recently broadcast TV documentary (“Under the Veil of the Mosque”) that had unmasked some extremist views existing among some Imams in Denmark. Without denying that such religious extremism warrants a clear political response, the Muslims were taken aback by the promptness of harsh rhetorical reactions which somehow targeted the Muslim communities as a whole, for instance by freezing a project of mosque construction. Moreover, some leading politicians made cryptic statements about putting an end to policies of tolerance without specifying what that means. When discussing such experiences, I also sensed anxieties among Muslims that the currently elaborated new rules concerning the acknowledgment of religious communities could be used in the future to strip Muslim communities from their achieved status positions in Denmark or to develop new tool for controlling religions and in particular Islam. This illustrates a need for more dialogue and trust-building between State institutions and Muslim organizations to prevent an atmosphere of increasing suspicion.
Some of the remarks made by leading politicians in reaction to the TV documentary could hypothetically indicate a political move back to a literal understanding of article 67 of the Constitution, including its far-reaching limitation clause that “nothing at variance with good morals or public order shall be taught or done”. As mentioned at the outset, however, this would not be in line with the modern understanding of freedom of religion or belief, which does not give free reigns to legislators to impose limitations whenever “public order” interests may be at stake. For limitations to be justifiable, a much more refined set of criteria must be met to ensure that limitations always remain exceptions to the rule that human beings should exercise their rights to freedom, including in the area of religion or belief.
- Christian minorities
Outside of the Folkekirke other Christian communities exist as well in Denmark. They come from the whole spectrum of Christian Churches, ranging from Old-Oriental and Orthodox Churches to various branches of Protestantism and Pentacostal communities. Most of them have just a few thousand followers. After the Folkekirke, the Catholic Church forms the second biggest Christian community, even though its constituency comprises not much more than one percent of the membership of the Lutheran Evangelical Church.
Baptists have existed since centuries in Denmark. Until the early 19th century, they suffered from serious persecution, since all parents were legally obliged to baptize their new-born children, which the Baptists refuse for theological reasons. Even after the 1849 Constitution, which broad freedom of worship for everyone, it took more a century before the Baptists received their formal recognition as a religious community in 1953. While appreciating the prevailing liberal atmosphere in Denmark, in which they can fully enjoy their freedom of religion, the Baptists criticize the non-egalitarian treatment of religious communities, which consistently puts them at a lower level compared to the Folkekirke. In this regard, what matters more to them than financial and other disadvantages is the element of a slight symbolic humiliation, which they often feel. That symbolic dimension, they told me, has sometimes been “trivialized” by State representatives when dismissing their claims for equal treatment as allegedly being motivated by financial and fund-raising interests only.
I heard similar criticism from the Catholic Church. Unlike the Baptists, Catholics have a history of a community of “foreigners” in Denmark, traditionally composed of traders, diplomats and other people temporarily residing in the country. Even today, the growth of the Catholic Church is largely due to recent waves of immigration. The Catholics would like to level a Church tax paid regularly by their members, in order to ensure more stability and predictability concerning the resources they need for running their charity organizations and private schools as well as for the maintenance of church buildings some of which are historical. A Catholic priest expressed some frustration that even before being entitled to baptize a child, he would always have to wait for certain documents coming from the Folkekirke, which he – as a born Dane – finds slightly annoying, since it constantly reminds him that Catholics, like other minorities, only rank second after the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have lived in Denmark since the late 19th century and can teach, preach and practise their religion without facing any obstacles. Conscientious objection to military services, which in Denmark continues to be mandatory, is always granted without undue procedural stipulations. Occasional complications concerning the right of parents to adopt children, which arose in the past, could all be settled satisfactorily. With regard to medical treatment without blood-transfusion, a core issue within the ethics of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, they even see the current accommodating arrangements in Denmark as a model for Europe.
- Other religious groups
Denmark has also become the home of communities outside of the circle of traditional monotheistic religions, such as Hindus and Buddhists. The country also hosts some thousand Baha’is, which represent a comparatively new monotheistic religion of the book. Unfortunately, it was not possible during the visit to meet representatives of members of these religious communities.
The Church of Scientology, which has existed in Denmark since the 1960, has its European headquarters in Copenhagen. In the absence of the formal status of an acknowledged religious community, they operate as a private association. Scientologists also run a few free schools, in which teachers from the Church of Scientology work alongside teachers from outside of the Church. These schools use teaching methods developed by the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. Although Scientologists complained about what they felt is unfair media coverage, including by public broadcasting corporations, they pointed out that they generally operate freely in Denmark.
- The Humanist Association
Whereas neighbouring Norway reportedly hosts the highest percentage of organized humanists worldwide, the Humanist Association in Denmark, established in 2008, merely brings together a few hundred members. Obviously, the humanists do not consider themselves a religious community. Although certainly not all of them are atheists (some of whom have their own organizations), the humanists generally promote worldviews, ethics and norms without reference to God. At the same time, they practise rituals and ceremonies in analogy to religious communities, including initiation rites, “humanist confirmation” (a term apparently borrowed from Protestantism), marriages and funerals. On top of that, they also pursue political goals, especially in the field of school education.
An application for formal acknowledgment, including the permission to conduct marriage ceremonies with legal effect, failed in 2010. The commission in charge of that negative decision referred to the criterion of belief in a “transcendent power”, which a community must subscribe to in order to receive acknowledgment; obviously, the humanists do not meet that criterion.
By rendering the acknowledgment of a religious community dependent on faith in a transcendent power, the Danish law deviates from European and international human rights law. Both the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Committee in charge of monitoring the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) have developed a jurisdiction that understands freedom of religion or belief more broadly. According to the Human Rights Committee, Article 18 of the ICCPR protects “theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief”2. In other words, freedom of religion or belief covers the whole range of identity-shaping convictions and conviction-based practices, also beyond traditional forms of monotheistic faith and worship. For Article 67 of the Constitution to remain in keeping with the meanwhile established understanding of European and international human rights law, it should be interpreted in a broad and inclusive way. The future treatment of the humanists may in this context assume the quality of a test case.
V. Challenges arising in the context of immigration and asylum
I often heard that the Danish people generally do not care much about religious issues. However, public attention may rise swiftly whenever religion comes up in the context of immigration. Apart from domestic processes of secularization, immigration has changed the Danish religious landscape profoundly by confronting a traditionally very homogeneous society with new religious communities, in particular Islam, which by now constitutes the second largest religion in Denmark. On top of that, religion has become visible and tangible in ways which differ very much from the still prevailing Lutheran focus on faith as chiefly affecting the person’s inner disposition. These far-reaching changes occurred within a historically short time span of just a few decades, and they are still going on, which understandably may cause feeling an anxiety and unease.
In discussions held not only in the Copenhagen but also in Aarhus and Vollsmose (Odense), I generally sensed a tendency to handle religious issues very cautiously. There are certainly many good reasons for such a cautious approach. When seeing the various challenges connected with immigration and integration mainly through a religious lens, this may lead to policies of “ascribing” religious identities and religious community memberships to immigrants, without giving them the appropriate space to articulate and develop their own self-understandings. Not every individual from a Muslim family background or with a Muslim name wishes to fast during Ramadhan. Freedom of religion or belief inter alia recognizes ambiguous attitudes towards religion, including the freedom not to care about religious issues or to keep them entirely private. In a somewhat nervous societal climate in which Islam attracts much public attention, it is all the more important – and certainly in the interest of freedom of religion or belief – to maintain a sensitive approach that avoids putting religious labels on people too quickly, in particular immigrants, who live in complicated and at times even vulnerable circumstances.
However, a cautious approach should not lead to putting a taboo around religion. Although religion is not the key to understand all the challenges connected with immigration and integration, it is certainly an important aspect that warrants attention and addressing, always on the basis of respect for human beings and their self-articulated needs, wishes and identities. This includes accommodating the community dimension of religion, which for many – certainly not all – migrants may be very important.
In some discussions, I got the impression that in immigration and integration policies religious communities are more often seen as part of the problem than as part of possible solutions. For instance, some State representatives repeatedly stressed that the Government would mainly protect “the integrity of the individual”. Of course, this is an important and indeed indispensable part of any human rights based policy. Depending on the circumstances, it should also include measures to protect some individuals – not least women – from pressure which they may suffer within their own religious communities. At the same time, it would be problematic to ignore the fact that many immigrants (again: not all of them!) may wish an adequate space also for the community dimension of religious practice, which is not a mere “secondary”, let alone marginal aspect of freedom of religion or belief. However, I repeatedly sensed reluctance, including when talking to Government officials, towards accommodating new religious community life in Denmark. Integration policies generally seem to favour an integration of individual migrants into existing (mostly secular) institutions, such as sports clubs, cultural associations and many other organizations, which is fine – and yet possibly not enough.
Reportedly, extremely complicated conflicts have arisen in asylum centres. Having to live in an asylum centre means enormous stress and frustration, with the risk that tensions arising from whatever reasons – lack of space, language barriers, unclear prospects etc. – can easily escalate and possibly intermingle with issues of religious or cultural pride. I could not gain any first-hand insights in this area here in Denmark. However, I heard that those in charge of asylum centres typically follow the cautious approach towards religion as just described. This may have many advantages. However, the flipside would be that people have no safe space for their religious practice, which the State should ensure also in the situation of asylum management to the maximum degree possible.
VI. Conflict preventing through pro-active outreach programmes
A problem that worries many people is the rise of religious extremism, not least after the killings of February 2015 at the Krudttønden cultural centre and in front of the Great Synagogue in Copenhagen. The Danish population was also repeatedly shocked by reports that some adolescents and young adults who grew up in Denmark travelled to Syria in order to fight for ISIS or other terrorist groups. Some of them presumably died in such fights.
Aarhus has gained international reputation for its de-radicalization policy defined by a pro-active outreach to all parts of the municipality in order to build sustainable trust. Social workers, police and other actors closely cooperate in a “cross-sectoral approach” that facilitates finding tailor-made pragmatic solutions before a personal crisis fully unfolds. The “info house” to which anyone should have easy access, embodies the “open door” policy adopted by the municipality in general. The message conveyed to the population is that anyone confronted with personal problems of whatever sort can count on professional support, including through counselling, mentoring and other offers. Even those who have come in conflict with the law and thus have to face punishments will also receive support, if they wish.
The cautious approach to religion, as sketched out in the previous section, also prevails within the Aarhus de-radicalization programme. Already the headline “political and religious extremism” signals that religion is not addressed in isolation. In practice, the programme aims at broadening the options that individuals at risk have in their daily lives, for instance, concerning accommodation, jobs and social contacts. According to information received from the municipality, the programme has yielded very tangible results, as testified inter alia by a sharp decline of people fighting for ISIS.
Close cross-sectoral cooperation also characterizes the community work carried out in Vollsmose near Odense, a municipality with 60 percent inhabitants of “other ethnic backgrounds” and a very high rate of unemployment with concomitant social problems. The municipality made national headlines when employing a hijab wearing woman in the police in an attempt to build more trust with immigrant communities from Somali, Palestinian and other origins. Indeed, “trust” is the keyword defining the common denominator of a number of new initiatives, such as a language café, a group of mothers supporting one another, mentoring for immigrant children etc. The local parish of the Folkekirke has hosted interreligious dialogue projects, thereby bringing together Sunnis, Shias and Christians from various denominations. Many of these initiatives have a particular gender aspect and aim at empowering women. The projects carried out in Vollsmose may serve as a good example of an approach which more explicitly and pro-actively addresses religion and religious community concerns.
VII. Blasphemy law and anti-hatred provisions
The Danish society has the reputation of highly valuing freedom of expression and preferring a rather straightforward way of communicating. It thus came as a surprise when the previous Government in 2015 announced that it would keep the existing blasphemy provision – Article 140 of the Penal Code – on the law books, even though it has not been used since many decades. Another surprising feature was that those pleading for maintaining the blasphemy provision mostly represented the left-leaning spectrum of the party system. The stereotypical assumption that it is usually the conservatives who wish to protect religious feelings by law, while liberals and leftists care more about free speech was thus somehow turned upside down.
Some interlocutors opined that abolishing the blasphemy provision could send a wrong signal, possibly alienating the Muslim population, who generally feel targeted by many ugly manifestations of hatred, above all in social media. However, one may wonder whether the hate-speech provision (Article 266 b of the Penal Code), which inter alia covers threatening, humiliating and degrading speech acts targeting people on the ground of their religion would not suffice. Indeed, it seems that the Government cannot imagine any actual use of the blasphemy provision except in very narrow circumstances, for example, when a holy book or other highly symbolic item would be publicly burnt, destroyed other otherwise desecrated.
The intention underneath the decision to keep the blasphemy provision is certainly understandable. However, it sits uneasily with the general policy adopted by EU members States to call for repealing blasphemy law worldwide. During a conference held in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) last year, the Danish blasphemy provision was cited by one presenter as an example allegedly indicating an emerging international customary law on “combating defamation of religions”. This is certainly not the position taken by Denmark in international forums – on the contrary. Just as abolishing the blasphemy provision could lead to misunderstanding domestically, maintaining the provision obviously can cause a different type of misunderstandings, not least in the international arena.
I would therefore like to refer to an action plan elaborated under the auspices of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in October 2012 in Rabat. Without denying the need for restrictive measure in extreme cases the “Rabat Plan of Action” calls upon States to repeal any remaining blasphemy laws. At the same time, the Rabat Plan emphasizes the primacy of non-restrictive measures to counter incitement to acts of hatred, for instance, through cross-boundary communication, educational efforts, community outreach, fair representation of minorities in public media, as well as solidarity actions in support of targeted individuals or communities.
- Gender issues
Denmark is in many ways at the forefront of promoting gender equality, not only with regard to men and women, but also concerning diverse expressions of human sexuality and gender-identity broadly. As early as in 1989, the legislator facilitated same-sex partnerships, and Denmark introduced same-sex marriage in 2012. Beyond the legal sphere, respect for equality and tolerance towards sexual minorities is reflected in the school curriculum.
In many countries, such developments meet with resistance by parts of the society, often articulated in the name of traditional religious family values. This has given rise to a widespread perception – or rather misperception – that freedom of religion or belief and policies of gender-emancipation do not fit together, even though they both belong to the human rights framework. Against such antagonistic views, the experiences all in all made in Denmark provide an interesting and encouraging example that respect for freedom of religion or belief and working on behalf of gender-related human rights can in fact go well together.
Among the first who made use of the possibility to register same-sex partnerships in 1989 was a gay pastor of the Folkekirke, which illustrates an openness on the side of the Church and the parishioners. A new step was taken in 2012 when the legislator introduced the possibility to have same-sex marriages celebrated in the Established Church. Although this caused some stir in parts of the Church, the new law found broad acceptance not only in the population at large, but also among church-attendants and the Lutheran clergy. In practice, those comparatively few pastors who do not wish to be personally involved with the celebration of same-sex marriages in the Church have never been compelled to do so.
I have not heard of other religious communities in Denmark celebrating same-sex marriages during their religious services. However, this may change in the future. While interlocutors from various communities with whom I discussed the theme usually showed quite tolerant attitudes, a study published in 2015 reported ongoing homophobia in certain conservative religious circles, across various religions. This is certainly an issue warranting further attention, communicative outreach and critical discussions.
Until some years ago, the Islamic headscarf used to be widely perceived as a symbol indicating an inferior status of women in comparison with men. However, such perceptions are changing. The Women’s Council, an umbrella organization existing since 1899, which currently brings together 44 women’s organizations from various sectors of the society, generally accepts the hijab, and a few hijab-wearing women operate within the Council. The Council supported a woman who lost her employment in a supermarket, because she insisted on wearing the headscarf at work. The complaint she filed was turned down by the Supreme Court in 2005. Members of the judiciary conjectured that a similar case might nowadays be treated differently within the court system, due to changing perceptions and attitudes in the society.
2. School education, awareness raising and interreligious dialogue
Throughout their entire school career, Danish students learn about religion. The subject aims to provide information so as to empower students to reflect and discuss about themes connected to religion and to make responsible personal choices in that area. In spite of such knowledge-orientation, however, the discipline itself highlights “Christendom” in its title.
While during the first seven years of schooling, the focus is actually on Christianity, the teaching during grades eight and nine includes world religions in general. Although the teaching is knowledge-based and does not include any religious practices in school, those parents or students who object on conscientious grounds can get an easy exemption. When visiting a school in Copenhagen’s neighbourhood Norrebro, I discussed experiences with teachers and students (grade 9) and learned that religious themes also regularly come up in disciplines outside of the subject “Christendom”. Critics of the Danish curriculum on religion, have voiced concerns that the amalgamation of “Christian values” with “Danishness” may lead to marginalizing children from minorities and immigrant families. In practice, much will depend on the pedagogical tact and sensitivity of teachers.
Beside public schools, which constitute the backbone of the Danish school system, some 500 private schools (“free schools”) exist, many of which are run by religious organizations, such as the Catholic Church, various Muslims organizations and the Jewish Community, which has one school in Copenhagen. From the Church of Scientology I received information that a few free schools in Denmark have adopted teaching methods of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology.
While private educational institutions exist at all levels of the school systems, from kindergartens to gymnasiums, this is not the case at the university level. Concerning university training, the State of Denmark holds a strict monopoly, with the effect that private institutions of learning with academic aspirations do not receive any official recognition. This inter alia affects private schools of Lutheran Theology existing in Copenhagen and Aarhus. Students enrolled in these institutions do not get any financial benefits from the State, and exams can only be conducted in cooperation with recognized universities in Denmark or universities abroad which formally have to provide the certificates.
In religiously pluralistic societies, interreligious dialogue is important to prevent stereotypes, dispel misunderstandings and develop trust across religious and denominational divides. I attended a discussion facilitated by the “din tro, min tro” (= your faith, my faith) project, an initiative originating from the Folkekirke, but also supported by the State. Three women belonging to the three classical monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – explained their faiths and practices to 9-grade students in Norrebro in order to trigger a discussion in the classroom. No less important than what they said was how they said it, i.e. in close and amicable cooperation between the three religions. That in itself was a strong message, which certainly came through. The students vividly participated in a spirit of open curiosity and interest. What I found remarkable was that most of the students, if declaring their own conviction (which they were not expected to do) said they were atheists. Maybe that was a pure coincidence, maybe it was not. I would at any rate take this as yet another indicator that it may be more and more important to open up interreligious dialogue projects so as to take agnostics or atheists on board, who apparently represent very broad currents in the society. In other words, interreligious dialogue should – not necessary always, but certainly more often – broaden into inter-convictional dialogue.
3. Specificities concerning Greenland and the Faroe Islands
Due to time-constraints, my visit could not directly cover Greenland and the Faroe Islands, which belong to the Kingdom of Denmark, while enjoying self-government concerning their internal affairs. I met representatives of Greenland and of the Faroe Islands who reside in Copenhagen, and I furthermore had a discussion with women from Greenland.
The Lutheran Evangelical Church has the status of an established Church also in Greenland as well as in the Faroe Islands. Membership in those two territories is even higher than in the rest of Denmark, ranging above 90 percent, while the numbers of religious minorities living there is very low. More importantly, the actual church attendance in both Greenland and the Faroes is significantly higher than in the rest of Denmark. A proposal to legalize same-sex marriages is currently under consideration in the Faroese Parliament. Religious arguments have been used by those opposing the proposal. By contrast, the introduction of same-sex marriage ceremonies, which will come into effect on 1st of April, found broad approval in Greenland and was also supported by the one bishop, a woman, who serves in the Greenlandic Folkekirke.
The teaching of religion in Greenland, while mainly focusing on Christianity, also includes some information about the traditional Inuit religion. Tragically, after the advent of Lutheran missionaries in the early 18th century, most of the traces of Inuit spirituality have been eradicated. Two ladies from Greenland, who currently live in Copenhagen, described Greenlandic customs and practices – such as music, dances, the use of amulets, everyday habits etc. – in which elements of the old spirituality at least remain tangible to a certain degree. The younger generation seems to show great interest in capturing and, if possibly, reviving those practices as part of their collective identity. A big problem, however, is the lack of funding, and they expressed hope that the international community and international donors would give more support. Reportedly, only two pastors work in the rest of Denmark to offer services to Greenlanders living there in their native tongue, which is by far not enough.
Denmark is a liberal country that values and respects freedom of religion or belief. All the interlocutors with whom I had the privilege to discuss the current situation would certainly subscribe to that positive assessment. At the same time, the Danish society faces challenges, which I would like to summarize briefly as four main tasks: (1) the development of an open, inclusive concept of Danish identity that embraces religious diversity; (2) working for more mutual understanding between different religious and non-religious (“secular”) groups and currents in the society; (3) institutional reforms within the Folkekirke and concerning the procedure of acknowledging religious communities; (4) maintaining a broad understanding of freedom of religion or belief in line with European and international standards.
5. Towards a more inclusive understanding of Danish identity
Up until the late 20th century Denmark was one of the religiously most homogenous societies in Europe. The Lutheran Evangelical Church has shaped an understanding of religion as being a highly intimate matter (“faith”), which at the same time functions as a source of ethical community values. This paradigm is still very much present in today’s society. It has survived far-reaching processes of societal secularization. Some scholars even see the Lutheran paradigm of religion as a root-cause of secularization in the sense of encouraging an internationalization of faith at the expense of its external visibility. Due to recent waves of immigration, however, the society is now confronted with new and “more visible” forms of religious expressions that do not fit into the established patterns. This has caused tangible nervousness in parts of the society, in particular when it comes to Islam, which meanwhile is the second biggest religion in Denmark. Muslim organizations have received formal acknowledgment as religious communities, they celebrate marriages with legal effect under the (secular) Danish law, and they have started to solidify their presence by constructing visible mosques and establishing their own graveyards. While the Danish society has de facto become multi-religious, this reality still seems not to be fully reflected in the common idea of “Danishness”. Even Muslims who have grown up in Denmark sometimes face strange demands that they should integrate more into the society. Public discussions about Danish identity, when not acknowledging the existing and emerging religious diversity, can easily lead to feelings of alienation among those whose “Danishness” is constantly questioned – often implicitly, but sometimes also quite explicitly.
It is the responsibility of the Government to take the lead in developing a more inclusive understanding of Danish identity. Obviously, it is a long-term task, which involves issues like school education, interreligious dialogue and other forms of inter-group communication, anti-discrimination policies and integration programmes. While many initiatives already point in this direction, there is still much ambiguity, not least in the rhetoric of leading politicians.
6. Fostering more understanding between different societal groups and currents
Denmark has a tradition of settling issue through face-to-face communication, especially at municipal and parish levels. Having the proverbial “cup of coffee” together has often helped ease tensions and prevent misunderstandings. This culture of direct open communication is very much engrained in people’s daily life. At the same time, the wide use of new social media has begun to change attitudes. While social media can certainly contribute to new forms of communicative outreach, they may also strengthen tendencies of remaining within the circles of likeminded people and avoiding face-to-face communication with people of different outlooks, persuasions and orientations. This can cause misunderstandings and societal polarization.
I have repeatedly heard assessments that the general tone of the societal debate in Denmark has become more much rougher, in particular through social media. One example is the discussion on the religiously motivated circumcision of male infants, as widely practised by Jews and Muslims. Circumcision is a complicated issue, which has many facets. But those discussing this issue publicly should always be aware of how deeply it affects many Jews and Muslims living in Denmark. This is just one example illustrating the need for creating more mutual understanding – including concerning controversial and complicated issues.
Religious minorities, in particular Muslims, often experience an atmosphere of unease and even suspicion. On the one hand, they supposedly do not fit into the traditional patterns of “Danishness” and “Christian values”. On the other hand, they also confront partially aggressive manifestations of secularism that do not give much space to any visible religious expressions in general and Islam in particular. At the same time, traditionalists in all religious communities often assume that people without religion would lack the necessary foundation for any moral values, which can breed suspicion against agnostics or atheists. In order to prevent and overcome a climate of suspicion, more dialogue seems advisable. To be sure, I have seen admirable projects in this regard. At the same time, there is certainly a need for developing new formats, for instance programmes to bring together believers from different religions with people who define themselves as non-believers or “religiously unmusical”. Interreligious dialogue should thus be broadened towards “inter-convictional” dialogue that includes agnostics, atheists and other people outside of the traditional canon of monotheistic religions. Again, the Government should take a lead in facilitating communication, while at the same time clarifying publicly that individuals and communities across the whole range of religions and beliefs constitute the Danish society and should feel safe and at home.
7. The future of the Folkekirke
The Folkekirke in Denmark largely functions as a source of inclusiveness. It has embraced far-reaching reforms in the area of gender-emancipation, and the celebration of same-sex marriages in the Church has found broad approval in the society. Many pastors support refugees and stand up in public against xenophobia and Islamophobia. Moreover, the Folkekirke can and does help to bridge the widening gap between religious minorities, especially Muslims, and those large parts of the society who generally do not care much about religion and yet remain somewhat in touch with the Church. Thus, there are good reasons to further cherish the particular self-understanding of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as the “People’s Church”. I am confident that the Folkekirke will continue to exercise its influence on the society in the spirit of inclusiveness, which I have very much felt in discussions with members and representatives of the Church.
It is this very spirit of inclusiveness, however, that at the same time can – and should – encourage new initiatives of sharing the privileges, which the Church has traditionally enjoyed. Inclusiveness and maintaining a monopoly on a certain status position do not credibly go together, least of all in an increasingly diverse society. I have heard fears that embarking on a course of disestablishment would eventually lead to a sectarian closure by which the Church would abandon its legacy of catering for the people broadly. I do not think that these fears are justified. They betray mistrust in the attractiveness of a more autonomous Folkekirke, and they at the same time play down dangers of utilizing a State-controlled Church for purposes of narrow versions of identity politics. Unfortunately, such dangers are not merely hypothetical. I trust that the Lutheran Evangelical Church will find a specifically Danish way of preserving the tradition of an inclusive Folkekirke within an institutional setting that ensures independence as well as equality.
8. Interpreting freedom of religion or belief in line with international standards
As emphasized before, the Government has to play a leading role in further developing a fair and inclusive Danish society in which members of different religious communities as well as more secular-oriented people can likewise feel at home. When doing do, the Government is naturally bound by the Danish Constitution, including its Article 67 on religious freedom, enacted in 1849. As mentioned in the beginning, Article 67 should be seen in light of European and international standards of freedom of religion or belief, which are much broader than the wording of Article 67. This may sound like a truism. However, some harsh statements recently made by leading politicians on the need to exercise more control over religious communities, in particular Muslim organizations, could hypothetically indicate a shift backwards. It certainly has been perceived as such an indication by members of different religious minorities. According to European and international standards that Denmark has accepted, limitations on freedom of religion or belief, if deemed necessary, must meet a number of criteria, which are much more specific than the general “good morals or public order” formula in Article 67 of the Constitution.
The Commission currently mandated to overhaul the criteria for granting religious communities acknowledgment-status, is supposed to also develop possibility of removing such a status. This, too, has caused some nervousness among religious minorities, which once again illustrates the need for transparent open dialogue. I hope that the new criteria will also allow the acknowledgment of life-stance organizations, which are not based on a belief in God. The still existing requirement that communities must have some belief in a transcendent power remains behind the meanwhile established European and international understanding of freedom of religion or belief as a human right that protects identity-shaping convictions and conviction-based practices more broadly.
I would like to conclude by expressing my gratitude to the Danish Government for the support it has given to my mandate as Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief throughout the six years that I have been in that position. The visit to Denmark has been an enormous learning experience for me. I have enjoyed the spirit of open, constructive communication with many stakeholders, and admirable initiatives I have seen make me very confident that the ongoing project of shaping an inclusive Danish identity will be a success story. Thank you very much and good luck.
1. I therefore dedicated one of my recent thematic reports to „the rights of the child and his or her parents in the area of freedom of religion or belief“.
2. General Comment no. 22 (1993) of the Human Rights Committee.