Freedom of Religion and Belief in Europe: An Interview with Lena Larsen

1 August 2022


Written by Maurisa Zinira

Intolerance and hate speech towards religious minorities are prevalent across the globe. In Europe, hostility towards religion even shows a dramatic increase. With the increasing wave of immigrants coming to Europe, negative stereotypes and sentiments against different religious groups and ethnicities fuels intolerance and discrimination. A Dutch parliamentarian, Geert Wilders, for instance, campaigned against the growth of Muslim population in the West, labeling Muslims as a threat to European women and civilization. At the same time, an individual or group forcing people to adopt religious beliefs or practices can also be found more often in different parts of European regions. This confirms the findings of the PEW research center released in 2017, that the number of European countries reporting this trend rose from 4 to 15 countries by 2017.

To understand the recent development of religious freedom in Europe, we conducted an interview with Lena Larsen—the director of The Oslo Coalition of Freedom of Religion or Belief, Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, University of Oslo, Norway on July 19, 2022, during her current visit to Indonesia for the International Conference on Religion and Human Rights: Pedagogical Opportunities and Challenges in Higher Education in Indonesia. Larsen who has been active in promoting interfaith initiatives in Norway shared that the reality of religious life and state guarantees for minorities in Europe reveals a complex situation that cannot be explained in one complete picture. This is because the status of religious freedom in Europe varies from country to country. Differences in demographic conditions and the character of social and political life greatly affect the attitude of each country towards minority groups.

For her, it is almost impossible to have a single picture of the European model of religious freedom. The first and foremost reason is that Europe is not a single entity. The continent consists of 50 countries, each with their own national identities that affect the degree of religious freedom. These identities also determine the degrees of secularization through which policy on freedom of religion is constructed and used.


Secularism vs. Religion

Larsen sees the relationship between state and religion as one of the factors that influence different degrees of tolerance and religious freedom in Europe. Secularism, which places religion at the private sphere, is said to play a significant role in shaping the government policies and social culture. France, with its laicite, for instance, continues to show a hostile attitude toward religion. France, which prides itself as being secular, has banned the use of religious symbols in public institutions such as schools and government services since 2004. Although in principle this prohibition is aimed at all religions, in practice, only the hijab and other forms of Islamic dress are at issue. At the end of 2021, the France Senate openly voted to ban religious symbols such as hijabs and burkinis at sport competitions and bathing areas.

Likewise, Norway, which in 2012 began to separate religion and state, has not yet fully shown respect for the minority, although according to Larsen, some changes are taking place. Norway was originally a monarchy based on the Evangelical Lutheran religion. The Norwegian Constitution of 1814 did not grant freedom of belief and religion. It prohibited its people from adopting other faiths contrary to that promulgated by the state church and denied Jews and Jesuits entrance to Norway. Only in the 1840s did the gradual shift in the constitution come into effect, lifting several religious compulsions and allowing various communities of faith and atheism to establish their communities and congregations without restriction. The exceptions were made only for Norwegian royal family and state officials who were required by the constitution to be Lutherans. But this constitution too was then amended on 21 May 2012 by decreasing the connection of the church to the state, and from 1 January 2017, by employing a full separation. The church no longer functions as a state agency, with the clergy no longer being state employees.

However, having gone through a long period of united state and religion, the Norwegian government has not really separated itself from religion. In some of its policies, the state still seems to control religious practices. Article 16 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Norway which states “All inhabitants of the realm shall have the right to free exercise of their religion. The Church of Norway, an Evangelical-Lutheran church, will remain the Established Church of Norway and will as such be supported by the State. Detailed provisions as to its system will be laid down by law. All religious and belief communities should be supported on equal terms” implies that the national government and local municipalities provide financial support to the church of Norway. The same is also given to existing religious communities by registering their groups and fulfilling the given requirements some of which are reporting religious teachings, regulations and activities, reporting names of board members and responsibilities of group leaders, to the process of operating rules on voting rights and the process for amending statuses and dissolution. Only faith communities with faith members around 500 will be granted state finances.

Larsen sees that although the government of Norway and several countries in Europe have legally established the freedom of religion, the enforcement of these laws is not always consistent. In Norway, discriminatory practices that show the domination of majority against the minority still occur. With the influence of humanists, the political framework has succeeded in bringing Norwegian politics to the privatization of religion. Even though it provides opportunities for minorities to vacation and enjoy their religious holidays, Norway does not allow animal slaughter to be carried out except by giving animals anesthetics before slaughter, making traditional kosher and halal slaughter illegal.

Although it appears to provide financial support to religious groups, the accommodation provided is part of a control mechanism. According to Larsen, this kind of accommodation is conducted within the framework of fighting against extremism, so that religious communities can be independent from the influence of the outside world, both financially and ideologically. Through this accommodation, the government requires minorities to assimilate with Norway's sociopolitical environment, which is now adopting new values in the form of 'benevolent' secularism, as Larsen terms it. Namely the state model that develops semi-secular politics where it does not entirely ignorant of the religions.

Government intervention in religious life is indeed increasing in various parts of the world, especially in Europe. Many countries have placed limits to women's dress where the number has increased from five countries reported to have restrictions in 2007 to a four-fold increase to 20 countries in 2017. But with many cases of discrimination against religions, conversations, and discussions are also brought to the table.

In Norway itself, awareness of pluralism is coming to term. As Larsen narrated, young Muslims are now taking part in community engagement. Many women have even become board members of Mosque communities where they begin to take initiative for freedom of religion within and outside their religious communities.


Accepting Pluralism

What is happening in France, Norway, and elsewhere in the region is a picture of the complex religious life in Europe. Each country established its own rules and policies based on their national identity. Therefore, Larsen argues, it is imprecise to use one model of freedom of religion to represent the life of religion in Europe. The long history of state-religion relationship has in fact grown into a cultural character that cannot completely disappear. Despite self-proclaiming to be secular, both the French and Norwegian governments cannot escape the shadow of religion.

According to Larsen, secularism does not guarantee freedom of religion. In many cases, it ruins it. Several countries that officially proclaim themselves as guarantors of freedom have failed to guarantee the fulfillment of this right. The growing number of European governments setting restrictions to religions are evidence of how secularism fails to facilitate a right to believe and practice one’s religion.

Instead of applying antireligious relations, Lena argues that embracing a positive attitude towards pluralism shows rather promising steps to humanity and interfaith harmony. Overcoming diversity by abolishing differences will actually give birth to frictions and social tension. Differences are not to be erased, but to be reconciled. Promoting freedom of religion is to accept pluralism. Larsen said, "It's to accept pluralism. It is to accept that human quality in each human being and that you are nothing more, nothing less, and to have this deep respect and critical approach”.

In fact, the high level of harassment against religious minorities is a collective work to be solved. Interfaith dialogue for religious freedom in Europe and elsewhere in the world should focus on cooperation. Larsen mentions, “In Norway, we have example of dialogue and cooperation. We are not looking into religious truth. We are looking at the humaneness of each other and how we can agree upon common principles and common practices”. Larsen proposes that communities of believers should engage with one another to nurture the culture of acceptance. It is through work and cooperation that believers can encourage European politics and culture to embrace pluralism, to respect freedom of religion, and to guarantee equal rights for all without discrimination.