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Church leaders deplore planned sermon restrictions in Denmark

05 February 2021


The interior of St Peter’s Church in Denmark

The interior of St Peter’s Church in Denmark

CHURCHES in Europe have urged the government of Denmark to reconsider legislation requiring all sermons to be in Danish, as part of moves to curb religious militancy.

The Law on Sermons, backed by the Social Democrat-led government, will require religious communities, including Denmark’s 270,000 Muslims, to deliver public statements in Danish, or make them available in translation.

“We recognise challenges adhering to integration in Denmark and throughout European societies,” the president of the Geneva-based Conference of European Churches (CEC), the Revd Christian Krieger, said in a letter last week to the Prime Minister of Denmark, Mette Frederiksen. “However, our member churches also possess extensive experience of the positive role that religious communities can play encountering such challenges successfully.

“Politically, CEC sees such legislation as an unreasonably negative signal in relation to religion and the role of religious communities in society. Furthermore, it would be an indicator to non-Danish, European nations and Christian communities that their religious practice and presence in Denmark are questioned and deemed unequivocally problematic.”

The open letter, co-signed by the Danish general secretary of the CEC, Dr Jørgen Skov Sorensen, said that churches speaking minority languages had helped migrants to form communities and integrate with society. The draft law risked tainting Denmark’s image “as an open, liberal, and free nation built on a Christian heritage of individual rights and duties”.

The Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, branded the legislation “illiberal” and urged Ms Frederiksen and her Canadian-born Culture and Church Minister, Joy Morgensen, to reflect on its “potential implications”.

“This overly restrictive step would constitute a limitation on freedom of expression, which I know is prized in Denmark, one of the world’s oldest democracies,” Dr Innes said last week. “We have tended to devote effort on protecting religious freedom of expression and belief outside Europe. We’re now also seeing an urgent need to act on these fundamental issues across Europe itself.”

Critics have called for Denmark’s Greenlandic and Faeroese minorities, whose languages are recognised by the United Nations, to be exempted from the measure, to be debated this month in the Copenhagen parliament, or Folketing.

Early last month, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, or Folkekirken, to which three-quarters of Denmark’s 5.8 million inhabitants traditionally belong, warned that the law would “pave the way for religious harassment”, while risking similar action against Danish congregations abroad.

In November, Denmark’s Council of Churches, whose 16 members include the Anglican, Orthodox, Reformed, and Roman Catholic Churches, predicted that the law would impose “significant burdens on economically weak minority Churches for no reason”, and warned Ms Frederiksen that it could make all faith traditions “hostages to a simplistic understanding of religion and religious practice”.

Church leaders across Europe have cautioned against permanent curbs on religious freedom in the wake of Covid-19 restrictions, which have led to forced church closures and limits on religious activities.

The Lutheran World Federation, a communion of 148 member Churches, warned last week that the Danish legislation contradicted international law, and could “encourage and further escalate the adoption of similar restrictive measures globally”.

The president of the Brussels-based Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the EU, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, said that he also feared “a broader, increasing trend” towards neglecting fundamental religious rights protected under the 1950 European Convention and the EU’s 2000 Charter of Fundamental Rights.

“While we understand that the goal of this proposal is to prevent radicalisation and counter incitement to hatred and terrorism, any negative or discriminatory impact should be avoided with regard to churches and religious communities that are averse and alien to such actions,” Cardinal Hollerich wrote on 22 January.

Churches and human-rights groups in Denmark have criticised other recent laws obliging religious associations to submit detailed accounts and personnel conducting weddings, including native-born Lutheran and Roman Catholic clergy, to take a course in “understanding democracy and freedom”.

In its letter, the CEC said that the use of foreign languages was a key to free-movement rights enshrined in the EU’s 2007 Lisbon Treaty, as well as the Council of Europe’s 2000 Charter of Regional and Minority Languages.

“If a proposal imposes financial and practical burdens that are not necessary to maintain order, health, and morals, such a proposal is an obstacle to full realisation of freedom of religion and belief,” the CEC said.

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