Column from Finland: Freedom of religion is also for atheists
Sari Savela, CNE.news
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Finnish Freedom of Religion Act. Freedom of religion and conscience is an important human right and a fundamental freedom.
The law of the Freedom of Religion was legislated in November 1922 and entered into force at the beginning of January 1923. The Freedom of Religion Act allowed for the establishment of non-Christian communities. The law also made it possible to leave a religious community or to change to another religion.
Before the law of the Freedom of Religion came into force, the Evangelical Lutheran Church was the denomination to which people naturally belonged; the Orthodox Church of Finland was also an official denomination. Also, before the law came into force, some feared a wave of secession. But that didn’t happen. Freedom of religion has not weakened the position of Christianity or the Lutheran Church. Instead, it has strengthened the position of other churches.
The majority of Finns, around 65%, still belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church. But the number of members is decreasing every year. The same trend is also true for other denominations; they are also suffering a loss of members.
Christianity is about respecting freedom. Freedom of religion is first and foremost a positive right. At the same time, it is also the freedom of not believing or belonging to a religious community.
Therefore, freedom of religion in Finland is also enjoyed by atheists and immigrants.
Globally, genuine religious freedom is rare. In many countries, religious freedom applies only to members of the dominant religion. Members of other religions have fewer rights or are even persecuted.
In Muslim countries Christians are generally in a tight spot. There are few Muslim countries such as Jordan where there is, in principle, freedom of religion. In practice, this means that you can practice your own religion in a controlled way and within certain limits.
Forbidden to talk about faith
Years ago, I flew to Amman the capital of Jordan to visit a friend who was living there at the time. On the plane, I sat next to a young Jordanian woman. In our conversation, I found out that she belonged to a Christian minority. We talked about the situation of religious freedom in Jordan.
When I naively asked her whether Christians could preach the gospel outside the church, for example to Muslims, she said very strictly that it is not allowed. So you can practice your religion, but it is forbidden to talk about your faith to non-Christians. Except if someone asks you about your faith you can answer.
For the time being, the freedom of religion is very good in our country compared to many others. But in practice, the status of religions is undermined by the fact that society promotes negative freedom of religion, even though the basic principle of legislation is positive freedom of religion. Non-religion is made into an apparently neutral option.
In Finland, the Christian content in school celebrations regularly come up for discussion. Some irreligious and atheist parents seek to remove all Christian elements from school and kindergarten. Although they are a small minority, they have much influence. For example, when one parent complains about a traditional Easter event organized in a kindergarten in cooperation with a local church, the kindergarten may drop the whole tradition just because one parent complained about the religious content.
Sing a spiritual song
For me, religious freedom means the freedom to believe, to practice and to express my faith. It is the right to sing a spiritual song at the school spring fete, to celebrate the true meaning of Easter and to present the Christmas gospel at the Christmas celebration.
According to Sari Essayah, Member of Finnish Parliament and Chairman of the Parliamentary Working Group on Freedom of Religion and Conscience, the media plays a key role in how they report or fail to report on religious freedom issues. In Finland, the mainstream media hardly report on the persecution of Christians, even though 360 million Christians suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith. For some reason it is not newsworthy, but it should be.
Sari Savela is editor in chief of Seurakuntalainen, a Christian news website in Finland. She is also active as a photographer. In her free time, she is involved in municipal politics.
She is married and mother of three grown-up children. Together with her husband, she does marriage work.
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