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Religious minorities

Religious minorities

According to surveys, polls and census data, only a minority of the Estonian population consider themselves religiously affiliated. There are two dominant religious traditions in Estonia: the Lutheran and the Orthodox. These two traditions form 90% of religiously affiliated population. These two traditions are also the only ones to have more than 100,000 affiliates.

 The largest religious minorities in Estonia are Christian groups: the Roman Catholics, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Baptists and Evangelical Christians have been the most important Protestant minorities since the late 19th century. There are also different Pentecostal and Charismatic communities, as well Seventh-day Adventists and Methodists. Diversity among Christian minority churches is significant. While there are several versions of liturgical Charismatics (Estonian Charismatic Episcopalian Church, the Anglocatholic Church in Estonia, the Charismatic Catholic Church), there are also congregations led by Nigerian evangelists as well as other Charismatic movements.

 A distinctive ethno-religious minority are the Russian Old-Believers who arrived to Estonia during the 18th century and settled on the Western shore of Lake Peipus. Through the centuries, the Russian Old-Believers in Estonia have maintained their ethnic, cultural and religious particularities.

 The Jewish community in Estonia has a long history. The first Jewish society was organized in the 18th century, and in the 19th century the first synagogues were established. In 1926, the Republic of Estonia granted the status of cultural autonomy for the Jewish community followed by increasing cultural and social activities. In 1940 the Soviet regime was enforced and Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union. The Jewish societies and religious associations were liquidated. The Soviet repressions in Estonia affected also the Jewish community, and in a mass deportation in June 1941 around 400 Jews, ten percent of the community, were deported. The Soviet occupation was followed by the German occupation from 1941 to 1944. During that period members of the Jewish community who had not left Estonia were destroyed by the Nazi regime. During the following Soviet occupation, from 1944 onward, Jewish religious activities were practiced mostly inside family circles. In the wake of the Estonian independence movement and national reawakening, the Estonian Jewish community became active once again. However, from a religious perspective, the developments during the 21st century have been the most important for the Jewish community as in 2000 the first rabbi since the Second World War arrived to Estonia, and in 2007 a new synagogue was opened. The Jewish community considers the number of Jews living in Estonia to be around 3,000 although the majority of the Jewish population could be considered to be highly secularized.

 The Muslim community in Estonia has its roots in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the first religious association was registered in 1928. Until the Soviet period the Muslim community in Estonia was almost exclusively ethnic Tatars. Due to the Soviet migration policies, there was a steady immigration to Estonia from the rest of the Soviet Union from 1950s onward. Although the Muslim religious associations were not allowed to register during the Soviet period in Estonia, the religious practices were followed in family circles. For the Muslim community the immigration meant also diversification. The national reawakening among Estonians in the late 1980s was followed by similar processes among ethnic minorities. The Muslim religious association was registered by Tatar cultural societies in 1989. In 1994, the congregation was reorganized under the name Estonian Islamic Congregation, and it represented both Sunni as well as Shia Muslims living in Estonia. In 1995 a splinter group, Estonian Muslim Sunni Congregation, was registered as a result of the discord in the Muslim community. In the 21st century the Muslim community in Estonia has become more diverse due both to immigration from Muslim countries, and to converts from ethnic Estonian and ethnic Russian background. According to the 2011 population census there were approximately 1,500 Muslims over 15-years of age living in Estonia.

 Although the first contacts with Buddhism in Estonia go back to the 1920s, and there has been an academic interest in Buddhism in the 1970s and 1980s that resulted in the publication of translations of Buddhist text, Buddhism became practiced as a religion only in the 1980s. Currently, there are four Buddhist religious associations registered in Estonia, which represent different Tibetan Buddhist schools. There are also several Buddhist groups that have obtained their legal entity status as regular non-profit associations.

 Estonian Jewish Community Website.
 Pilli, Toivo, Dance or Die: The Shaping of Estonian Baptist Identity Under Communism. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009.
 Ringvee, Ringo, "New Religious Movements and New Age in Estonia", in James R. Lewis and Inga Bårdsen Tøllefsen (eds.), Handbook of Nordic New Religions. Leiden: Brill, 2015, pp. 478−494.
 Ringvee, Ringo, "Charismatic Christianity and Pentecostal churches in Estonia from a historical perspective", Approaching Religion, 5 (1), 2015, pp. 57−66.
 Ringvee, Ringo, "Estonia", in: Oliver Scharbrodt et al (ed.), Yearbook of Muslims in Europe. Leiden: Brill, 2015, pp. 201–208.
 Talts, Mait, "The First Buddhist Priest on the Baltic Coast: Karlis Tennison and the Introduction of Buddhism in Estonia", Folklore. Electronic Journal of Folklore, 38, 2008, p. 67−112.

Further information on religious minorities in Estonia can be found on the Estonica website.

D 14 September 2016    ARingo Ringvee

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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