eurel     Données sociologiques et juridiques sur la religion en Europe et au-delà


  • May 2020 : Estonian religious associations during the first wave of the pandemic in Spring 2020

The Government of the Republic of Estonia decided on 12 March 2020 to declare a situation of emergency. Initially, it was meant to last until 1 May, but it was extended in April and lasted until 17 May 2020. Among other restrictions, all public gatherings were prohibited.
Religious associations made first preparations for the possible spread of the coronavirus already as early as March, when it was clear that the spread of the virus would soon gain momentum. Masks were stocked, hand avoidance was advised and hand disinfection facilities were set up. For example, the consecrated water touched by those entering the church in the Peter and Paul Cathedral of the Catholic Church in Tallinn was removed. The Orthodox churches considered it necessary to clean more often the surfaces which were kissed. However, the cancellation of services was not considered necessary and the communion was celebrated as before (Eesti Rahvusringhääling).
The first messages about the restriction of worship by religious associations came just before the announcement of the emergency situation. On 12 March 2020, the consistory of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church informed the congregations that in the coming weeks people should be informed that it is possible to participate in worship via radio or the Internet instead of coming to church. In congregations where more than a hundred people are expected to attend the services, the services must be canceled, but the church door had to be kept open so that people could enter for prayer. To disperse people, it was recommended that services be held during the week or at different times on Sundays. Physical contact, e.g. the greeting of peace, was not allowed ; there had to be a proper distance between those sitting in the church benches (initially about 1 meter was recommended). Church coffee and other forms of communication after the service had to be cancelled. Conferences, concerts and other events also had to be canceled or postponed. Despite the restrictions, the possibility of receiving a private communion remained in place. This had to be arranged by the clergy so that the clerc would dip the bread (oblation) himself in the wine and place it directly on the tongue of the faithful. All the rules of hygiene had to be followed on the Eucharist. The consistory also supported the idea that clergy and parish workers could, where they have the capacity to do so, help municipal employees, for example, in bringing food home for the elderly (see Eesti Evangeelne Luterlik Kirik website).
On the day the state of emergency was declared, the Estonian Council of Churches (consisting of ten Christian denominations) called on the congregations and all Estonians to pray for the people, and stated that the council and its member churches were concerned about the safety of individuals and the entire society. Therefore, the council asked to follow the instructions and recommendations given by the Government and relevant agencies and international organizations to prevent the spread of virus.
When on 12 March it was still unclear whether services were allowed or not, on 13 March 2020, Minister of Population Riina Solman met with the leaders of Estonian Council of Churches to discuss the requirements and restrictions arising from the state of emergency and stressed that all gatherings and public events, including services, should be stopped due to the potential risk of infection. She added that the inconvenience caused by the restrictions of an emergency was understandable, but it should also be understood that not only our health, but also the protection of lives was at stake. Solman acknowledged that in individual cases, religious services could be performed privately, but even in this case, the possible risk of infection to other people must be eliminated.
As a result of the meeting, emergency instructions were given to congregations stating that all religious public organized events, including public worship services, church concerts and other gatherings, were postponed or cancelled until new instructions or emergency situations were completed. The statement emphasized that the religious freedom of all Estonians was guaranteed even in an emergency, but that consideration of the protection of human health had also to be taken into account. Private religious services (pastoral conversations, worship and communion) were still allowed. However, they had to be organized in such a way as to exclude the risk of infection to other people. The Estonian government allowed the churches and other places of worship to remain open in order to meet people’s personal religious needs. While in most cases churches remained opened, the Estonian Islamic Center in Tallinn closed its doors completely. As it was the time of Ramadan, members of the centre organised a food aid to frontline workers and those in need.
On 16 March 2020, the Minister of Population specified that, as crowded gatherings were prohibited, restrictions also applied to important family events, such as weddings, funerals and birthdays. It was possible to exceptionally apply for a visa to enter the country when coming from abroad for a funeral.
The state offered its assistance in broadcasting services, and on the proposal of the Minister of Population, a Sunday service was included in the Estonian Television programme schedule from March 22. Minister Solman emphasised that the State understood the inconvenience caused by the emergency, but said that it was in the interests of protecting the health of people living in Estonia.
Through the Ministry of Social Affairs, the chaplaincy for pastoral care started working on making emergency pastoral care available and a telephone counselling was launched on 17 March 2020, with which medical institutions and nursing homes received a personal pastoral worker.
Fearing that members of Christian denominations might violate the national ban on public services, before Easter, Roman Catholic Bishop Philippe Jourdan, Metropolitan of the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church Stefanus, and Metropolitan Jevgeni of the Estonian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate urged people in a recorded message not to come to church and to stay safely at home. A few cases were reported, where liturgy was secretly held, but no sanctions followed.
Although at first the religious associations and their leaders adapted agreeably to the new situation, in April the first critical speeches and writings about restrictions were published. The criticism was especially sharp among the conservatives. Similar statements from Europe were often cited.
Mid-April, the conservative online magazine Our Church asked whether the church should obediently obey state orders or whether it should listen to the word of God rather than the word of man, referring to the New Testament Book of Acts (Acts 5:29). The author of the article, Veiko Vihuri, declared that the secular authorities do not have the right to order the Church not to hold services. He called it a tyrannical abuse of power. He also criticized church leaders and clergy who had been more obedient to worldly powers than to God’s command : “When the Church closes its doors and ceases its services, it is no longer a Church.” Vihuri mentioned a comparison between the situation of the early Church and the modern pandemic, when the gathering for worship was for several periods illegal and the will of the state authorities was ignored or defied. "God also has his demands", Vihuri concluded.
The understanding that the status of Churches was different from that of cafes, football matches, or other public places and events was increasingly heard in April and May, especially when the gradual opening of the society started to be discussed. At the end of April, the Archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, Urmas Viilma, demanded that the restrictions on the churches be eased. On April 22, he prepared a series of proposals, which were approved the following day by the Estonian Council of Churches. They were also presented to the Prime Minister and Head of the emergency board, Jüri Ratas. Among other things, Viilma justified his claim by the fact that representatives of other organizations in various fields also turned to the Government with proposals to ease restrictions. According to the proposal, worship had to be restored under certain conditions, which included limiting the number of people in the service, installing disinfectants and keeping a two meters distance. Separate rules were established for the clergy to use personal protective equipment and to avoid physical contact. The Council of Churches wanted the relief to take effect on 1 May 2020, and from 15 May 2020 in the Saaremaa island, which witnessed a severe infection rate.
As no decision followed, Viilma considered his right to publicly signal to the representatives of the state that the church wished to resume worship services. On May 3rd, he announced in media that he invites clergy to ring church bells on Monday, Wednesday and Friday of the upcoming week. This decision reflected the disappointment that the churches could not open their doors from 1 May. Although Viilma explained that his aim was to signal that the churches were ready to open their doors, it was interpreted in political circles as a rebellion against the state authorities. This was characterized by the statement of Helle-Moonika Helme, Deputy Chairman of the Estonian Parliament (Riigikogu) faction of the Estonian Conservative People’s Party, that Viilma was already engaged in politics before the elections and was still doing politics. Helme regretted this because it was a public health issue. Helme also referred to state support, which was intended to compensate for the loss of income during the service. Conservative circles in the Lutheran Church were critical of Helme’s views and asked if the shopping malls would really be reopened before the churches. According to the Minister of Population Riina Solman, the ban on public services would be lifted when the Government would decide to ease other restrictions as well. She did not criticise Viilma’s call, but recommended that, as long as indoor services were prohibited, services could be provided outdoors.
On 5 May 2020 the Government of the Republic decided that the restriction on public gatherings will cease to apply to religious services from 10 May 2020. A demand of keeping a distance of two meters stayed in place. Congregations also had to ensure that disinfectants were available. As the situation eased already in May and the restrictions were proportionally lifted, there were no legal complaints in Estonia from religious associations.
As of May 17, when the emergency situation ended, 1774 infected people had been diagnosed, with 69 520 initial tests made. Since March, 63 people had died of the disease.
After the restrictions were lifted, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas sent a letter of appreciation to the Estonian Council of Churches for the help they provided in fighting the virus.
On 16th May 2020, a commemoration service was held for the victims of the virus. Gratitude was expressed by the Council of Churches to those who had made a significant contribution in fighting the virus. Among others, the Minister of Population Riina Solman and the Chief Medical Officer of the Health Board, Dr. Arkadi Popov, spoke and received the honors.

  • April 2020 : Financial support for Estonian religious communities during the pandemic in 2020

During the pandemic and in the state of emergency declared by the Estonian goverment on 13 March 2020, a decision was taken on 24 April by the Government to provide 2 million Euros for the support of religious communities in Estonia (see the Estonian Council of Churches website).
The explanatory letter stated that the aim of the measure was to support religious associations whose activities were severely disrupted during the crisis, but which continue to provide people with both spiritual and social assistance. Due to the limitations of the emergency situation, the activities of religious associations in earning their own income were significantly limited. According to the government, there has been an increase in the number of people turning to churches during the crisis.

D 4 janvier 2021    APriit Rohtmets

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