Churches want restitution of all their property under new museums law

Niguliste church.
Niguliste church. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The Archbishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Estonia (EELC) Urmas Viilma, believes that Estonian museums should return church-owned art treasures, whereas the Ministry of Culture believes that each individual case should be discussed to ensure the preservation and accessibility of the heritage.

In his Sunday opinion article, Viilma argued that the Estonian government has always sought justifications for why the church's property should not be returned to its rightful owners.

However, the churches want their assets back.

Merilin Piipuu, undersecretary for cultural heritage at the Ministry of Culture, said that Viilma has only recently raised the issue of returning the church's assets, as the Riigikogu is reviewing the Museums Act.

"The churches propose that all church assets located in museums be handed over to them without debate. However, the ministry suggests that this be discussed, and that each case be examined separately," Piipuu continued.

Church property is protected in museums and churches have also deposited their own treasures in museums for the very same reason, she said.

"We are very open to discussions on restitution and museums are currently having them, but the most important issue is how best to conserve the heritage of our small nation. How do we ensure that the public is aware of this cultural value? In this case, we could debate who should be in charge of those cultural assets," Piipuu explained.

Piipuu added that currently no church or congregation has a dispute with the state.

Sirje Helme: The Art Museum of Estonia has the best conditions for preservation

Sirje Helme, the head of the Art Museum of Estonia (AME), told ERR that the museum has no church property other than in the Niguliste Museum.

"When the Niguliste church building has been transferred to the Art Museum of Estonia, the church has received a substantial (€6.75 million -ed.) monetary settlement from the state," Helme said. The EELK waived all claims arising from the state's obligations that arose prior to June 16, 1940 in exchange for this compensation.

It also waived its claim for restitution and compensation for the Niguliste church building and land, as well as all claims for restitution of movable property—that had been excluded from the property reform, but belonged to the Niguliste congregation at the time of the illegal transfer—which is now housed in the AME's collection as museum objects.

Individual congregations or churches, on the other hand, can still claim and reclaim their property, Helme said.

Works of art from the Church of the Holy Cross in Harju-Risti, for example, that have been reclaimed by the congregation through the courts but have remained in the possession of the AME following last year's state court ruling, are also on display in Niguliste.

"We also had a lengthy legal battle over the Harju-Risti congregation's wooden sculptures, which the church took to court and lost, as this is an item of exceptional historical and artistic value and no one but us could guarantee its preservation. This 14th century sculpture group was removed from its original location in very poor, decaying condition and donated to the AME after being restored in Kanut," she said.

The Church of the Holy Cross in Harju-Risti did not have the conditions in place at the time to prevent the wood from decaying further. "So the Calvary group was left to the art museum because it was the only place where such a fragile work of art could be preserved," Helme explained the outcome of the court case, which started in 2019.

Poor conditions in churches for the preservation of artistic masterpieces is a recurrent issue, she said.

"Churches possess many priceless works of art, which we have displayed in our exhibitions, and we have seen that they are not adequately protected against the ravages of time," Helme continued.

"So I did not understand fully what Viilma was going for with his opinion piece. We have, in my opinion, made sufficiently clear agreements with the church," Helme said.

Historical wooden sculptures in the Church of the Cross in Harju-Risti on a postcard from 1928. Source: Reproduction

Harju-Risti church. Source: Postimees/Scanpix

Reform of property rights did not return movable assets

Liia Hanni (SDE), a former minister of reforms in Mart Laar's cabinet between 1992 and 1995, said that the churches did not automatically receive back the moveable property seized from them during the Soviet era because the movable property was not returned in full during the property reform.

Neither was there any special provision for churches in the law. "The Property Reform Act established a general framework for who could reclaim what property, but did not include churches directly. Churches were recognized as legal entities if their operations were ongoing, but there was no provision for restoration or compensation for movable goods," Hänni explained.

Hanni said that property was excluded from the ownership reform because a line needed to be drawn somewhere.

"This reform was really difficult. We had to restrict the amount of reform work, which was already a massive undertaking. And verifying property ownership was essential," Hänni continued.

However, churches have every moral right to take back property that was previously theirs, she said. "I believe they have a moral right because they were the original property owners."

Hänni said that the legislator could very well declare that all churches' movable property must be returned to them. "This is entirely possible, as no avenue is closed to the legislature just because a different decision was made about movable property 30 years ago. However, this is no longer just a matter of church property; it is also a matter of people's movable property," she added.

Viilma: The interpretation of the ministry of culture is unfair

Viilma said that the Ministry of Culture's view that the church wants the assets returned without negotiation is unfair to the church.

"We raised the issue several times and waited for a discussion, which never happened. It is reasonable to suppose that when a law is submitted for approval, a specific suggestion for the legislation's wording might be made; however, the current format does not allow for a possibility to amend the law in such a way that the state and the church can negotiate. Legislative proposals should not be carried out this way," said Viilma.

Viilma emphasized that the current proposal to alter the legislation by changing the statute's specific wordings is not the right format to introduce policy ideas based on principles.

"However, the ministry has refused to initiate any negotiations and our suggestions have simply been ignored," he said.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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