Archbishop: Religious alliance good in principle but urges caution

Archbishop Urmas Viilma
Archbishop Urmas Viilma Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Head of the Lutheran church in Estonia, Archbishop Urmas Viilma, says the newly-formed International Religious Freedom Alliance, which Estonia has just joined, is a good initiative, but warned against its becoming an organization which fights for only certain religious groups.

"In itself, this is a nice initiative, envisioned last summer by [U.S. Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo and brought into being in September by Donald Trump, and whose meeting our foreign minister has gone to," Viilma told ERR Thursday.

"Against this backdrop, must be set growing violence against religious communities and churches, and not just Christians, but other religions," he added.

At the same time, Viilma pointed out that little is known about the alliance as of yet, since the meeting Reinsalu attended in Washington D.C. on Wednesday evening, was its opening event.

Estonia, oft cited as one of the least religious countries in Europe, became a founder member and active partner of the International Religious Freedom Alliance, Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) said on Thursday.

Critics of the alliance have argued that its real purpose is an effort by Donald Trump, who faces a presidential election later in the year, to please his lynchpin electoral base, namely evangelical Christians.

Estonia must ensure it does not become involved in the political games of others, in joining the alliance, Viilma said.

"Who makes up the alliance that will be formed? And this should be in the bigger picture, an alliance against religious persecution, not just an alliance for certain religious groups," Viilma continued.

The archbishop acknowledged that, for example, the Lutheran World Federation, which he is vice-president of for the Eastern Europe region, itself has taken a somewhat wait-and-see attitude towards the alliance, since there is too little information available on it so far.

"There, too, it (The LWF — ed.) recognizes that violence against Christians is on the up round the world. There is an Open Doors [religious freedoms] organization that measures this, with last year's report stating that eight Christians died [as a result of persecution] every day last year, and 25 churches per day were attacked worldwide. "

Viilma added that increasing violence is not limited to the Christian community.

"This cautious attitude stems from the fact that when we fight for religious freedoms in the world, we must fight for all religious freedoms, and not narrowly think about one religious or religious group here [in Estonia]."

Viilma said situation of Christians in Estonia is good, although there have been some negative cases, such as when a church door was set on fire and damage done to a churches' walls.

"Indeed, there have been verbal assaults by Christians on Jews in the streets. This is, of course, to be condemned. But the situation in Estonia itself is still very good and we can be grateful for that," he said.

More than 20 states participate in the International Religious Freedom Alliance as founders, with Austria, Croatia, Greece, Lithuania, Latvia, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Czech Republic and Hungary all joining Estonia. The U.K. is also set to join the alliance.

On Friday, Reinsalu will attend the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. where President Donald Trump will give a speech. The Foreign Minister will also meet with Bill Keating, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Archbishop Urmas Viilma is head of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK).

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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