Practising religion in Estonia

Friday, February 21, 2020.

Yesterday (Thursday, 20 February 2020 from 19:00-22:00) I had the honour of speaking about faith in Estonia at a public event, together with six representatives of other religions.

Everything was in English, as the event was organized by the magazine Estonian World. It was the first event of their project “Estonishing Life”, a series of public events about Estonian culture targeted at foreigners who live in Tallinn. This first event had been announced as taking “a closer look at different religious communities and their activities in Estonia”. It took place in Vurle café, Telliskivi 60/2, I-Hoone. The room was filled by about 50 visitors; about half of them were Estonians.

Excerpts from the Facebook event page:

Irina Pärt represented the Estonian Russian Orthodox Church (she is a member of Nõmme Orthodox Church in Tallinn). Irina works as a senior researcher at the faculty of theology at the University of Tartu and has published extensively on the history of Old Believers and the Russian Orthodox Church. She is the author of two books on the subject that have been published in English: “Charisma and Tradition in Russian Orthodoxy” and “Old Believers, Religious Dissent and Gender in Russia, 1760-1850”. Irina is also a cofounder of Saint John School in Tallinn. Image may contain: 1 person, child, outdoor and close-up

The Estonian Jewish community was represented by Ilja Smorgun. Ilja holds a PhD in information society technologies. He has been previously working as the usability specialist at the Estonian Information System’s Authority (Riigi Infosüsteemi Amet), where he was designing new digital services for the Estonian State Portal, Currently, he is the associate professor of interaction design at Tallinn University and is managing the NGO Estonian Jewish Education Centre.

Luc Saffre shed light on his experiences at the Estonian Lutheran church. Luc was born and grew up in Belgium (Eupen), and at the age of 32 married an Estonian woman and moved to Estonia almost 20 years ago. They have two daughters and live in Vana-Vigala, a small village between Tallinn and Pärnu. Luc grew up in a Catholic family, but here in Estonia he is more actively engaged in the Lutheran church. He also has good friends in Baptist and Methodist church. “I perceive the differences between religions and Christian theologies rather as enriching than separating. My faith is influenced by the spirituality of the Taizé community – their prayer style is my preferred one. I classify myself as a convinced reasonable Christian,” he says. In his daily life, Luc works as senior software developer in a small Estonian company owned by himself and his wife.

Estonian Buddhist community was represented by Priit Rifk from the Buddhist Drikung Kagyu Ratna Shri Center in Tallinn. It is a Tibetian Buddhism centre in Tallinn, where regular practice evenings, meditation weekends, courses for beginners and longer summer retreats are organised. Various meditations taught at the centre originate from Drikung Kagyu ancient system of teaching. Drikung Center in Estonia is open to everybody who wishes to calm down one’s mind and develop selfless and compassionate attitude. Priit himself has been a member of the Drikung Kagyu for almost ten years. His interest in Buddhism began more than 15 years ago and there were not too many Buddhist centres publicly known in Estonia back then. He did find Drikung Kagyu, and was really happy to have a chance to learn Buddhism from the ancient lineage and from those teachers who have deep knowledge of not only the philosophical aspect, but also the practical point of view. Priit considers himself a young practitioner who still has a lot to learn.

The Estonian Muslim community was represented by Dr. Kazbulat Shogenov. Kazbulah is the president of the board at the Estonian Islamic Centre Foundation (Tallinn’s mosque). He works as a doctor of geosciences and a research scientist at the Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech). Kazbulah is also the head coach of the Estonian Taekwondo National team and the president of the Kabardian Cultural Society of Estonia “Elbrus”.

Aleksander Sarapik represented the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church at our event. He is a high priest and the development director of the Estonian Orthodox Church. He received his masters degree in theology from the Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Boston and was consecrated as a high priest in 2008. Sarapik also holds the military rank of a colonel lieutenant in the Estonian Defence Forces and has been serving as a principal chaplain for the Estonian Defence League since 2016. He has participated in military missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina twice. Furthermore, Sarapik has worked for the Estonian Ministry of Culture, as a coordinator of foreign relation for the Tiigrihüpe (Tiger Leap) programme, as well as a specialist in the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Social Affairs and Ministry of Foreign Affairs; as a social and cultural advisor for the Tallinn City Council, and leading the youth collaboration project at the Estonian Red Cross. Aleksander Sarapik has been giving lectures on different topics since 1983 – karate, youth projects and defence of the country to name a few, as well as about his work in the church and as a chaplain. Last, but not least – Sarapik has received numerous honour medals and awards for his services.

The evening started with a general overview by Ringo Ringvee on the religious landscape in Estonia. Ringo is a historian of religion. His academic interest is in the relations between the state and religions. Besides, Ringo is also a poet and a DJ! Back in 2011, Ringo also wrote an article in The Guardian on religious beliefs in Estonia: Is Estonia really the least religious country in the world?

It is fun to note that the distribution of speakers was not statistically representative. Orthodox church was represented by two theologians (who by the way were sitting at the left-most and the right-most seat) while all other Christian denominations were so-to-speak on my amateur shoulders.

For me this event was a nice occasion to talk about the Good News and to make publicity for both Lutheran and Catholic church and –of course– for the Taizé prayers in Tallinn.