Oddbjørn Leirvik (research associate), Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo:

State, Church and Muslim minority in Norway

Paper presented to the conference "Dialogue of the cultures", Berlin 21-23 April 1999


Although Norway has endorsed a strong commitment to human rights and the principles of non-discrimination, the Church of Norway is still a state church, and the Norwegian state is formally "a state with a religion". But the state church system has been substantially modified through steady reform, and compensatory measures have been introduced to the effect that Norway is also in a sense "a state with many religions". Since the 1970s, religious pluralism has increased in Norway, partly because of Muslim immigration. In the same period, the majority population has tended to reaffirm its adherence to the "Christian cultural heritage" - a notion that along with expressions like "Christian and humanist values" has also become a political slogan. In primary schools, a new and compulsory subject termed "Knowledge of Christianity with information about Religions and World Views" has been introduced. Although the new subject was meant to be inclusive and accommodate for inter-religious dialogue in public schools, it has been met with resistance from most minority communities in Norway, organised Muslims included. At the same time, Norwegian churches and Norwegian Muslim communities have engaged each other in a living dialogue. Although many native Norwegians are anxious about the new Muslim presence, examples of more inclusive discourses in the general public may also be cited. With a view to the future, and a possible abolition of the state church system, the question arises: will religion be considered merely as a private matter, or can we foresee a society that actively values and supports religions and life stances in their pluralist expressions - as a matter of communal concern?


The new religious Norway

Traditionally, Norway has been a relatively homogenous country in cultural and religious terms, with a firmly established state church system. Out of 4.3 millions Norwegians, 88 % are still members of the Lutheran Church of Norway, which is often referred to as "folkekirken", the church of the people. About 3,5 % of the population belong to other churches, the largest of which are the Catholic church and the Pentecostal movement which amount to some 1% of the population each. Only about 10 % of the population, however, would consider themselves as regular church-goers, and recent polls show that not more than 38% of the population consider themselves to be "religious" people. The major part of those who belong to the Lutheran state church would only make use of the services of the church at the main cross-roads of life. Nevertheless, most of them would probably consider the so-called "Christian cultural heritage" to be part of their identity. During recent years, increased pluralism within and among the churches has in fact coincided with a widespread tendency towards reaffirming the "Christian cultural heritage" as part of one's personal and collective identity. Notwithstanding a rather pervasive secularism in practical life, and a low percentage of confessedly "religious" people, there are many indications that Christianity has reinforced its importance as a cultural symbol of national unity. The need to reaffirm one's own identity faced with growing immigrant religions, and increased awareness of the role of religion in the shaping of cultures, might be parts of the explanation.

Since the 1970s, the religious scene in Norway has changed substantially, mainly because of the growth of immigrant religions. At the end of the 1990s, Norway is the home of about 67 000 immigrants and refugees of Muslim background, which amounts to 1.5 % of the total population. Among the 67 000, statistics show that more than two thirds (46 500) have also organised themselves by becoming member of a Muslim congregation in Norway. The level of organisation among Muslims in Norway has been rapidly increasing. In 1980, 10% of those with a Muslim background were members of a Muslim organisation. In 1990, the percentage had increased to 50%, and in 1998, as much as 70% of immigrant Muslims had a formal affiliation to an organised Muslim community in Norway.

The dominant nation groups among Muslims in Norway are Pakistanis, Bosnians, Kosovo-Albanians, Turks, Iranians, Moroccans and Somalians. In some parts of the capital, the concentration of the Muslim population has resulted in a Muslim majority in a few city centre schools, and a substantial percentage of Muslim pupils in several other schools all over the city. Oslo alone counts for almost 30 mosques. Only one is purpose-built, the rest of them are more modestly accommodated in converted industry or office premises.

During the last ten years, Norway has also witnessed a considerable growth of Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh communities, which would amount to 20 000 / 10 000 in all when counted by religious background / formal affiliation respectively. The oldest non-Christian community in Norway, the Jews, only amounts to about 1 500 people.

A particular feature of the Norwegian situation is the relative strength of the secular Humanist Federation, which engages 1,5 % of the population as their members, and represents more than that with their alternative ceremonies (name-giving, confirmation, burial) and their articulation of a non-religious ethics. Already in the 1970s, they succeeded in establishing a "World Views" alternative to Christian education in public primary schools.

If we add widespread, non-confessional and New Age-oriented spirituality among native Norwegians, one can really speak of a new religious Norway. A growing tendency of organised pluralism coincides with an increased number of "wandering souls", less loyal than before to their formal religious affiliation (if any).

So far, Norway has only got some 25 years of experience with being a truly multi-religious society. Popular as well as official responses to the new situation vary a lot. Some people are ready to embrace post-modern pluralism without fearing to lose their own identity. Others would like to reinforce the state religion, or what most politicians and church leaders invoke as "the Christian cultural heritage" of Norway. As we shall see, this tendency has led to recent clashes in the field of religious education in school - between the cultural majority and a minority alliance of secular humanists, Muslims, Jews and others.

The state church system

The (Lutheran) state church systems in the Scandinavian countries have several parallel features, but increasingly distinguishing marks as well. Sweden has recently decided to abolish its state church system (as from 2000), but the Church of Sweden will probably retain many of its characteristics a nation church, and seek for new kinds of formalised interaction with the state. In Denmark, Folkekirken ("the church of the people") remains a state church without major reforms. In legal terms, Church of Norway lies somewhere in between Sweden and Denmark: the state church system will remain at least for a while, but has recently been subject to several reforms that have transferred authority from state and municipal authorities to legally independent church bodies.

The state church system in Norway implies something more than just a pragmatic ordering of the affairs of a nation church. Constitutionally, one might in fact say that Norway is a state with a religion. At the same time, Norway subscribes to the human rights principle of a non-discriminatory freedom of religion. As the constitution of Norway stands today, many would say it is rather contradictory in the field of religion - prescribing a rather solid alliance between church an state and simultaneously affirming an unfettered freedom of religion.

The second paragraph of the Norwegian constitution reads as follows (in my translation):

All inhabitants of the kingdom shall be free to exercise their religion.
The Evangelical-Lutheran religion remains the public religion of the state.
Inhabitants confessing this religion, are obliged to raise their children in the same.

Other paragraphs prescribe that the King must confess and protect the Evangelical-Lutheran religion (§ 4), and that half (originally all) of the members of government are required to be members of the Lutheran church (§ 12b). Additional paragraphs gives the King the prerogative to supervise religious services and doctrinal purity, as well as the right to select the clergy (§§ 16 and 21). But these have been put in brackets by a far-reaching reform process which has delegated most of the internal matters of the Church of Norway to democratically elected church bodies. But the government still elects the bishops.

As for § 2 of the constitution (cited above), the second part - a state with Lutheran religion - came long before the first - freedom of religion. Freedom of religion was only inscribed in the constitution in 1964, and followed by a Law of Faith Communities in 1969.

Before the time of the constitution (1814), Norway had little or no experience with other religions, or even with other Christian confessions than Lutheranism. Catholicism was severely restricted after the Lutheran Reformation, that took place by royal decree and in accordance with the principle cuius regio, eius religio (control of religion corresponds to territorial control). Almost 300 years later, in 1814, the fathers of the constitution found it necessary to state explicitly that neither (Catholic) Jesuits nor Jews should have any access to the kingdom. The ban on Jewish presence was lifted in 1851. Curiously enough, it should take another hundred years before the prohibition of the Jesuit order was removed from the constitution, in 1956. And only in 1964, the principle of religious freedom was explicitly stated as part of the Norwegian constitution. Notwithstanding the legal delay, faith communities outside the state church have in general been able to express themselves freely and organise their affairs without any interference from the authorities.

Compensatory measures to the state church system

At the structural level, Norway remains a state with a religion. Different from Sweden, where the decision has recently been taken to abolish the state church system, the state church system of Norway still enjoys considerable popular and political support. But different from Denmark, where the notion of the nation church and the state church system has remained without major changes in the 20th century, there has been a steady work for increased church self-determination in Norway. During the 80s, the reform process culminated in the establishment of a church synod with wide-ranging authorities, and regional church bodies (dioceses) were given the right to elect and appoint most of the clergy and church personnel. But two important aspects of state rule still remain, also in Norway. First, the government still appoints the bishops and the deans, by which it may exercise considerable influence on the profile of church leadership. Second, almost the entire church budget (most salaries, much of other running budgets, as well as maintenance and raising of new churches) remains part of the general state and municipal budgets. Thus, Norway remains one of very few nation states in which the finances of a particular faith community is fully integrated in the public budgets.

Church of Norway-budgets are financed by the general tax bill, which means that there is no separate "church tax". Without compensatory measures for tax payers outside the Lutheran church, this system would, of course, threaten principles of non-discrimination rather dramatically. But here comes the paradox: The same Norway that faithfully pays the salaries of all her Lutheran priests (as well as most other church personnel), offers the same amount of money per member to other faith communities as the state church receives per capita. Following an amendment to the law of 1969 that laid the ground for these compensatory measures, even secular humanists are entitled to the same amount of financial support.

In 1997, the combined state and municipal support amounted to 342 NOK (about 50 USD) per member/year for Oslo's part (the municipal part varies). State and municipal support according to this principle is accessible for any faith community that is willing to sign up for support. This means that also the steadily growing Muslim organisations in Norway are to some extent financially supported by the state. In addition to the general support per member, the municipality of Oslo has given considerable financial support to Muslim qur'anic schools through the school budget, for Muslim pupils that have opted out of Christian education as well as the alternative subject "World Views" in public schools.

In this way, the state church of Norway finances its own vigorous opposition. Although the system may seem to be very generous, it is of course only a matter of justice. This is the way Norway has chosen to refund that part of the official budgets that are set apart for the Church of Norway: not by refunding individual non-members, but their faith communities. The only condition is that individuals let themselves be registered. Since there is no membership fee in the state church, no membership fee is required as part of the registration of members in other communities neither.

Given the fact that 88% of the Norwegian population are still members of the Lutheran Church of Norway, and no other single faith community amounts to more than 1.5%, it goes without saying that there are still huge differences in the infrastructure of the overwhelming majority religion on one side and that of the numerous and relatively small minority communities on the other. Those who want to raise purpose built mosques or temples, face financial challenges far beyond what the membership fee can cover. But the principle of membership support may still be patent enough. Since this system of compensatory measures was introduced by law in 1969, Norway may be said to have not only one, but numerous state supported faith communities and religions - a wide range of free churches, but also Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhs and the Baha'i faith, as well as the likewise state-supported non-religious association of secular humanists.

Partly because of this system of compensation, many faith communities in Norway - Muslims included - tend to have a rather pragmatic approach to the question of whether the state church system should stand or not. Many fear that in a state without an officially supported majority religion, there would be no political will to support any faith community. All communities would then have to raise their money directly from their members. That would, of course, be the normal global procedure, but a scenario looked upon with some apprehension by some of those now enjoying state support in Norway.

Is everything concerning freedom of religion in well order, then, in the kingdom of Norway? Probably not. Although rather content in financial matters, most minority communities would still argue that the state church system constantly threatens some fundamental human rights principles of non-discrimination. As indicated above, half of the ministers of the Norwegian government are still required to be members of the Lutheran church. By convention, only Lutheran priests are employed as hospital and prison chaplains, and cemeteries are under church administration.

As for the relation between state and civil society, faith communities are treated as a protected zone of civil society in one particular respect: The Law of Equality between the Sexes does not apply to internal affairs of faith communities (not even to the state church).

State, church and school

Most of the problems related to freedom of religion have been linked to the system of religious, or rather Christian education in schools. Until 1969, only Lutheran Christians were allowed to teach religion (or "Knowledge of Christianity", as the subject was named until recently) in public primary schools. The underlying idea would be that only Lutheran teachers could properly aid the (at that time) maybe 95% Lutheran parents to fulfil their constitutional duty (!) to raise their children as good Lutherans. Until then, confessional Christian instruction was the only teaching in religion offered by the state schools. Many non-Lutheran pupils used the long established right to opt out. Only from 1971, an alternative was organised in some schools, under the more neutral label of "world views" or "life stances" (in Norwegian: "livssyn"). Behind the organisation of a world views-alternative in primary school there was the pressure not of the other churches, but rather of the secular humanists in Norway.

Private schooling is a very weak tradition in Norway, and private primary schools encompass only 1.5% of all pupils in Norway. Public schools in Norway, as well as public kindergartens, still have a Christian objects clause, stating that kindergartens and schools should help the parents to raise their children in accordance with the basic values of Christianity. For primary schools, the formulation runs as follows (in my translation):

In co-operation and understanding with the home, primary school is supposed to help in giving the pupils a Christian and moral upbringing, to develop their talents both spiritually and bodily, and to give them a good all-round knowledge so that they may become beneficial and independent human beings in home and society.

In 1997, a new system of religious education was introduced in primary schools. Until then, parents had three options as to religion in school: either (1) Christianity with a confessional, Lutheran basis, or (2) "world views" with a neutral or even secular flavour, or (3) nothing at all (with qur'anic schools as the only alternative for some Muslim children). From 1997, pupils are supposed to take part in the new and compulsory subject "Knowledge of Christianity with Introduction to Religions and World Views". Full exemption is not possible, only so-called "partial exemption" from activities that parents might deem to run contrary to their own faith (i.e. reading prayers aloud, or participating in other worship-related activities). As the name indicates, there is a difference in ambition between "knowledge" (of Christianity) and "introduction" (to other faiths). However, the law presupposes that all religions are taught with the same pedagogical approach, and treated on their own terms as "a living source of faith, morals and life interpretation".

When first introduced, the new subject was met with considerable suspicion and protest from the non-Christian minorities. Some concessions, however, were made to minority interest in the course of the process, and resource persons from the minority communities were engaged to take part in revision the curriculum that was first suggested. The new curriculum implies that for the first time, all Norwegian pupils will receive a substantial amount of knowledge of Islam and the other world religions, as well as of philosophy and more secular outlooks on life. Apart from ensuring that all pupils will have a good knowledge of the Christian tradition as well as of other religions and world views, the intention has been to open a space for dialogue-training in an increasingly multi-religious society.

Despite these good intentions, to which most parents and faith communities would probably subscribe, minority representatives initially saw the new subject as a just another way of reinforcing "the Christian cultural heritage" or "Christian and Humanist values". Although several adjustments have been made to accommodate for minority interests, many minority representatives still struggle for the right to opt out of the new subject entirely, and - if necessary - to organise alternatives as before. Both the Humanist Federation and the Islamic Council will bring the case to Norwegian courts in 1999, and if necessary, take it to the European Court in Strasbourg.

Some parents in the minority groups, however, seem to have become slightly more positive, and there are some indications that the subject (with further major adjustments) may eventually become rather flexible and pluralistic in practice. But the majority of Muslims - many of them have taken to the streets (in Oslo and some other cities) to demonstrate against the new compulsory subject - are still suspicious towards the original design of the subject ("Christianity plus"), and critical of the idea of a compulsory subject which is mainly Christian in quantitative terms.

The case is replete with potentially wide-ranging consequences. Within say ten years, we will know whether a unified school system - including a unified system of religious education - will survive the new pluralism in Norway, or whether people will organise themselves differently in order to ensure their freedom of religion. With a view to religious freedom, the situation is aggravated by the fact that the only application so far for a state supported Muslim private primary school was turned down by the Social Democrat Government in 1995. The reason given by the Ministry of Church, Education and Research was that such a school would not be beneficial when measured against the over-riding ambition of integrating language minorities in public schools. The reference to the integration of immigrants and "language minorities" indicates that the principle of religious non-discrimination was considerably downplayed. Although only 1.5% of primary school pupils go to private schools, new schools with a Christian basis have steadily been introduced and accepted, raising the suspicion on the Muslims' part that they may not enjoy equal rights with Christian minorities.[After this paper was prepared and delivered, the application for a Muslim private school was finally approved by the Christian Democrat led government i December 1999, with reference to the principles of religious freedom and the right of parents to chose the education of their children].

Religion and politics

It could be argued that religion in school is not primarily a issue between the Church of Norway and the other faith communities, but rather a question that relates to a new kind of (moderate) religious nationalism which is often voiced more forcefully by politicians more than by church leaders. As of today, several competing versions of a public discourse reaffirming the "Christian cultural heritage" of Norway can be identified: a social democratic version emphasising the need to ensure that the church does not discriminate between regular church-goers and more passive members; a Christian democratic version which has sometimes a slightly more revivalist touch; a traditional conservative version; and even some recent versions voiced by the extreme right that tend to use "Christian values" as a protective shield against the "foreign cultures" of the newcomers.

The social democratic movement (the Labour party) has been the major political force in Norway during the last 50 years. In the social democratic tradition, there has been a strong backing of a unified school system, in accordance with the vision of a society with a maximum of equality (or even "likeness") both in social and cultural fields. The application for a state-supported Muslim private school in 1995 was turned down by the then social democratic government. The Labour party was also a major force behind the new and compulsory version of religious education in primary schools, in alliance with the Christian Democrats. In general, the social democrats have left their earlier view of religion as a private matter. They have intervened actively in church matters (in particular, through the election of bishops), in order to ensure that the Church of Norway remains a national church that accommodates for both liberal and conservative tendencies. Many would see the general thrust of their recent politics of religion as reaffirmation of the Christian cultural heritage in a liberal and inclusive interpretation, and as a bond of national unity.

Since 1997 [until 2000], Norway has had a government made up by the three parties that are considered to constitute the political "centre" of Norwegian politics, with the Christian Democrats as the major force. The Christian Democrats have traditionally regarded themselves as political representatives of the more conservative brands of Christianity in Norway, but have recently changed their image towards a more liberal and inclusive vision of Christian culture.

In a sum: through the combined influence of the social democrats and the Christian democrats, and in accordance with a general political consensus, the focus of politics of religion has been upon integration of different beliefs into one "Norwegian" culture, rather than upon minority rights. Whereas integrative visions may entail measures intended to ensure that Norwegians of different beliefs will still have common cultural arenas (e.g. public schools), minority concerns would rather point in the direction of the right to opt out and to establish alternative or parallel arenas.

With only 25 years of experience to accommodate for extensive religious pluralism, Norwegians enter the future with a mixed heritage of state religion and a strong subscription to human rights values. Many people committed to human rights issues would like to abolish the remnants of the state church system as soon as possible. This is also true of many church leaders, that in general tend to be more critical of the state church system than the political parties and the majority of the population.

But it is not at all sure that a state without a religion will give better opportunities for faith communities to express themselves. In my opinion, the alternative to the state church system should not be a society in which religion is regarded entirely as a private matter. What should be sought for, is rather a society and a state that actively values and supports religion and existential conviction in its pluralist expression. How can religion be treated as a public matter in a more inclusive way? Hopefully, the strong tradition in Norwegian society to regard religion as a public matter may prove to be not only a problem, but also a resource - in a new, multi-religious context.

For a pluralist society to thrive, however, the majority population of Norway will have to learn to live more comfortably with differences. Although Lutheran Christianity has become more sensitive of minority issues, much of the impetus will have to come from the minorities. 150 years ago the joint efforts of a tiny Quaker minority and radical democrats within the majority church opened the door to freedom of religion in this country. The historical lesson might allow for some optimism as to the possibility of minorities to generate slow, but in the end wide-ranging change in society.

Towards more inclusive discourses in society?

During the 90s, several initiatives in the direction of Christian-Muslim dialogue and inter-religious dialogue has been taken. Some of them have been initiated by the churches, such as the regular Contact Group between the Church of Norway, the free churches and the Islamic Council in Norway. In the general public, inclusive attitudes compete with mounting anxiety towards Islam and Muslims. In the cultural and political debates centred around Christianity and Islam, church leaders have unambiguously defended Muslim minority rights. In 1997, Christian leader of all confessions and theological tendencies joined hands with the Muslim community and warned publicly against the enemy images of Islam produced by the extreme political right.

Also on the political level, the challenges of inter-religious dialogue are gradually recognised. In the wake of the hot debate over religion in schools, a Coordination Committee for Faith-and Life Stance Communities has been established - by formally elected representatives of the churches, the Islamic Council, the Buddhist Association, the Jewish community, the Baha'i community, the Humanist Federation and the so-called Alternative Network. Two government sponsored dialogue projects with representatives of all major faith communities have been carried out, one about "Communal Ethics in a Multicultural Norway" (1992-93) and another about "Religion, Life Stances and Human Rights in Norway" (1996-97). Muslim leaders have been active in both projects. In 1997, the Christian Democrat-led government set up a "Human Values Commission", a political novelty meant to be an invitation to all sectors of civil society to initiate communal and general ethical discussions. Behind the initiative, there is the recognition shared by large sectors of Norwegian society that values, life stances and religion are matters of public concern. It is not only the sake of the individual - it matters for the community. In the "Values Commission", representatives of the Islamic Council and some other religious minorities sit together with church people and representatives of the general public.

Slowly, Norway is getting accustomed to being a multi-religious society. There are several challenges to be faced, both by the religious majority and the minorities. A major challenge might be the tendency on the part of the majority population to equate "Norwegian" with "Christian" (alternatively "Christian-humanist") values. Although it is not always clear what this would imply (considering the wide array of value positions within the Christian majority population), minorities are apprehensive of a public discourse that is sometimes heavily marked by a distinction between "us" and "they".

Hopefully, the churches will be in the forefront of a process towards more inclusive expressions of national unity - acting not only as representatives of the "Christian cultural heritage", but just as much as defenders of minority rights. The regular dialogue between the churches and the Muslim communities in Norway may be a good start.