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2016

October 2016 : Celebrating the Reformation by kicking the Virgin Mary ?

In October 2016, the year-long celebration of the Lutheran reformation began with an ecumenical service in Tallinn. Together with the Reformation, the Lutheran church celebrates the 100th anniversary of its independence, and the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia in 2018. This is marked by a series of events, gathered under the title Landmarks of Freedom.
Just a few months before that, the Estonian National Museum opened in Tartu. The museum, founded in 1909, has for decades operated in various buildings and has waited for its own house for more than a century. After a grand opening ceremony, an exhibit gained much attention – in a section where the Lutheran reformation was described, the destruction of sacred pictures and church belongings during the reformation was mentioned. An animation was provided : every visitor could identify themselves as one of the vandals who committed the destruction, by kicking an image of the Virgin Mary with their foot. She would then fall into pieces, and after seconds would become one again.
A question was then raised by religious leaders, and gained so much attention from the public in the following weeks that it sadly overshadowed the opening of the new museum. Church leaders emphasized that the kicking was an unpedagogical way of interpreting the Reformation, because it was against Christian principles to kick someone. The fact that it was the Virgin Mary made the kicking even worse, because without any explanation, this could be interpreted as kicking a young woman. On the other hand, some defended the interpretation, emphasizing the need to remind that the Reformation had not been as smooth a process as what we might think it was. What made the public reaction even worse, was the first explanation given by the museum. The PR person of the museum defended the interpretation, claiming that in a society where there was no state church, it was possible to make fun about religion, and interpret historical as well as religious events with a sense of humor. The director of the Museum, Tõnis Lukas, later tried to soften the interpretation, explaining that the museum did not want to make fun of any particular group in the society, but wanted to unite people. He agreed that kicking the Virgin Mary was probably not the best way to explain the Lutheran Reformation, and decided to remove the possibility to kick her offered as an animation. Consequently, the exhibit itself was not removed, but the animation and the kicking were. The visitor can now only see how the Virgin Mary collapses, and after a few seconds, is put together again.

Priit Rohtmets

- September 2016 : Should the President go to church ?

In September 2016, Kersti Kaljulaid took office as the new President of the Republic of Estonia. After an inauguration ceremony in the Parliament, she welcomed guests in an art museum in Kadriorg Castle. Less than a few months later, the biggest daily newspaper Postimees published a newsflash claiming that the Archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, Urmas Viilma, had addressed the President after her election and before her inauguration, and had invited her to a service at the Lutheran Dome Cathedral near the Parliament house after her inauguration ceremony. Such an invitation is a custom which goes back to the presidential inauguration of Lennart Meri, who was the first president to take office in 1992, after the Soviet occupation had ended in 1991. Since 1991, a religious service has been a part of all major state anniversaries and many other State events. Although the Republic of Estonia does not have a State church, its relationship to the church is described positively in the constitution, and it is mentioned that the State and religious associations cooperate in the fields which are deemed important by the two of them.
President Kaljulaid decided to turn down the invitation of Archbishop Viilma. After her decision was made public, for another two months the newspaper headlines discussed her right to do so. On the one side, some emphasized freedom of religion and conscience of an individual (§40 in the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia), claiming that the President, like any other citizen, has a right to choose whether to attend the service or not. On the other side, critics stressed the need to maintain the traditions, because given the young age of the State, there are few of them anyway. A more serious critique underlined the President’s duty to be the president of all the people of Estonia, including the members of religious associations. Critics said that her action insulted Christians.
President Kaljulaid explained that she respected the work that religious associations are doing in Estonia, but considered religion to be a private matter. She added that it would be dishonest to participate in services, when she didn’t have this habit before her presidential election. At the same time, she said that in the past, she had accepted invitations to events of religious nature and with representatives of religious associations. For example, during her tenure at the European Court of auditors (she served there from 2004 until 2016), she was invited to the Vatican by Pope Francis, and she went there because she considered it customary to accept the invitation.
Other articles, on the same topic, accused Archbishop Urmas Viilma of having the agenda to make Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church into a state church. The truth is that, after Viilma had been turned down by the President, he had offered various solutions to the question, including holding an ecumenical service, but the President did not change her mind.
In a National Television Christmas interview, the President said that the neutrality of a state was the best guarantee against outside intervention and influence coming from other religions. She said that it enabled us to understand what was foreign and strange to us, and what were our own customs and traditions. Some agree with her, and some claim that in order to have an understanding of “the other”, the society needs to understand its particular religious identity, and religious as well as cultural past. Critics have said that her understanding of a state’s neutral position cannot be fully carried out without recognizing the Christian past of Estonia.
For Christmas, the President decided to visit places where people have to work during the holidays, e.g. fire brigade, military, etc. During the visit, she also went to a service carried out by a Lutheran military chaplain. The President later defined it as a "contemplation service". Before Christmas, she had argued in an interview that the tradition of Christmas was much older than Christianity and had various meanings. At the same time, she has confirmed that she values the work that churches are doing. As proof of that conviction, during her regional calls she has several times dropped by local congregations, with the aim to recognize and praise the work which they are accomplishing.

Sources (in Estonian) :
in Postimees : "Kaljulaid selgitas oma suhet kirikuga", "Viilma : olen väga rõõmus, et president Kaljulaid ei näe kirikul ainult tseremoniaalset rolli",
in Delfi : "EELK peapiiskop : president Kaljulaid käis kirikus"

Priit Rohtmets
  • Debates in 2015-2016 : Ban on burqas ?

In 2015, the Estonian public discussion was heated by two topics : the discussions on the European migration crisis, and a debate on whether burqas and niqabs should be banned in public space in Estonia. The discussion was initiated on 7 August 2015 by the Minister of Social Protection from the conservative Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit) who noted that Estonia should regulate certain behaviour alien to Estonian customs. Although the idea had wider implications concerning public safety and security aspects, the discussion became defined in the public as "the burqa-ban." The reactions to this idea were diverse. While the Gender Equality Commissioner argued that prohibiting some culturally or religiously motivated garments would breach constitutional rights, the former Estonian judge at the European Court of Human Rights Rait Maruste referred to the practice of the ECtHR allowing limitations to certain religious dress codes. The Estonian Women’s Associations Roundtable supported the proposal to prohibit wearing niqabs and other dress codes that are "discriminating against women."
The reactions from the Estonian Muslim communities were diverse as well. Ildar Muhhamedšin, Imam of the Estonian Islamic Congregation, considered the proposed idea as a violation of religious freedom, and expressed his willingness to turn to the EU institutions for help if the ban was implemented. However, the former chairman of the Estonian Islamic Congregation, Timur Seifullen, from the Tatar ethnic community, considered the idea to prohibit facial covering as reasonable. He stressed that niqabs and burqas are regional particularities, and not something required by Islam as a religion.
As a result of the proposal by the Minister of Social Protection, the Ministry of Justice began to draft legislation that would regulate the wearing of face-covering garments in the public square. In September 2016, there is still no regulation implemented concerning facial covering in public.

Sources : Mihelson, Helen, "Naisteühenduste ümarlaud toetab burkade keelustamist avalikus ruumis" (Roundtable of Women Associations gives support to the prohibition of burqas in public), Postimees, 27 November 2015 ; "Eesti tatarlane : Koraan ei nõua naistelt näo katmist" (Estonian Tatar : Qur’an does not require face covering of women), Estonian Public Broadcasting News, 12 August 2015 ; "Võrdõigusvolinik : püüd keelustada näokatteid on põhiseadusega vastuolus" (Equality Commissioner : attempt to ban face covering is violating the Constitution), Estonian Public Broadcasting News, 7 August 2015 ; "Arvamused nägu katvate riiete keelamise osas lähevad Eestis lahku" (Opinions on prohibiting full face covering garments differ in Estonia), Estonian Public Broadcasting News, 8 August 2015.

Ringo Ringvee
5 octobre 2016