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Archbishop calls for referendum on compulsory religious education in Estonian schools

EELK Archbishop Urmas Viilma outside the St. Mary's Cathedral, also known as the Dome Church (Toom Kirik) in Tallinn.
EELK Archbishop Urmas Viilma outside the St. Mary's Cathedral, also known as the Dome Church (Toom Kirik) in Tallinn. Source: Rene Suurkaev

Head of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK) is launching a petition to hold a referendum on whether to make religious education a compulsory subject in Estonia.

Archbishop Urmas Viilma said: "The EELK Consistory is launching a petition by which we invite the people of Estonia to appeal to the Riigikogu with a proposal to organize a referendum in Estonia on the question: 'Do you support the inclusion of non-denominational religious education among the compulsory subjects at elementary and high schools?"

A similar referendum was held exactly 100 years ago, the archbishop said, and at that time brought religious education back into Estonian schools as a compulsory subject.

The subject had been removed from the school curriculum some years prior to that.

Since the Soviet Union was an avowedly atheist state, religious education even as a comparative study would have disappeared from the curriculum altogether, while Estonia was under that occupation.

"In a situation where the public's natural religiosity has not gone anywhere, it is irresponsible to deliberately deprive each new generation of religious knowledge and the relevant education, as a result of national education policies," the archbishop went on.

The petition if it comes about would refer to Estonia's 500 municipal and state-run schools, of which only around 14 percent offer religious studies as a suhect, even then only as an elective subject, Viilma said.

Religion and religious knowledge are part of basic education only in private Christian schools, where a total of 2,700 students are enrolled this year, around a third of them in Lutheran schools.

The archbishop made his remarks during a sermon at an EELK service in St. Mary's Cathedral, at which he also addressed the issue of the plight of the St. John's Estonian Lutheran Church in St.Petersburg, Russia, where demands are being made to remove

"For our part, we have done everything so that compatriots trapped behind the eastern border do not feel forgotten by Estonia. We agreed with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria, operating in Russia, to add provisions to the agreement already signed with them, under which the Church of Ingria pledges to ensure the preservation of the Estonian language and culture at the St. John's parish and church in St. Petersburg."

The archbishop also said that legal changes last summer, which included the adoption of the law legalizing same-sex marriage in Estonia, had happened at a breath-taking pace, one which the EELK and its congregations had struggled to keep up with.

To that end, the head of the EELK said, imposing laws in this way represents obstruction just as much as does filibustering.

"The fact that you cannot drive out Beelzebub with Beelzebub is already written in the Bible. Obstruction cannot be defeated by obstruction. Mutual obstruction by the front-runners of democracy ultimately means the suicide of democracy," the archbishop said.

Unlike most of the Scandinavian countries, Estonia does not have a state church as such, though Lutheranism is the largest single denomination by adherents from among the native Estonian populace.

Lutheranism reached Estonia as a result of the magisterial Reformation starting in the 16th century, at a time when Estonia's aristocracy was German-speaking.

Within the online petition forum, a petition can reach the Riigikogu when it garners 1,000 or more signatures.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Urmet Kook

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