SWEDEN: Financing of religion: Jehovah’s Witnesses in the crosshairs

By Willy Fautré, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers

HRWF (04.29.2024) – The government of Sweden is drafting new legislation revising the Act on State Grants to Religious Communities. Framing the bill as providing “clearer democracy criteria,” the government is in fact crafting the language to potentially target Jehovah’s Witnesses.

This is in harmony with former Secretary of State for the Ministry of Culture Nina Andersson’s comments during an SVT program: “The current legislation [on state grants] has obviously not worked [since Jehovah’s Witnesses are eligible to receive state grants]. Therefore, we will also turn to the parliament with new legislation in this area to correct this.”

From 11 to 20 October 2023, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Nazila Ghanea, visited Sweden to investigate the following issues and make recommendations:

National laws, policies, institutions and practices

Pressure on the public manifestation of religion or belief

Engaging with and support to religion and belief communities

Education on religion

Discrimination of the basis of religion or belief

Instances of religious or belief intolerance

Challenges arising in the context of immigration and asylum seekers

Conscientious objection

The situation of Muslims

The situation of Jews

The situation of Sámi people


The UN Special Rapporteur about the financing of religions 

In her “Preliminary observations and recommendations” in October 2023, Ms Nazila Ghanea said:

“Sweden’s offer of access to numerous funding streams and grants to facilitate the work of religious communities needs to be recognised as a good practice. This also includes the public support of some faith schools.

Funds are distributed to 24 communities at the national level through the Swedish Agency for Support to Faith Committees (SST). The SST notes that the distribution of funds to these faith communities is in recognition of the important role of religious diversity.

Not all faith communities avail themselves of these grants and funds, and there is oversight over the dispersal of such funds. Funds to local faith communities are primarily dispersed by (independent) municipalities.

Funds to the Church of Sweden operate differently, in light of the fact that it constituted the state church until 2000, the responsibilities that still accrue to it, and the numerous buildings and sites it maintains.

Faith communities have concerns that the political environment is making access to funds more precarious and that they are insufficient for the range of their needs and activities, and even their possibility of meeting in safety and security.”

EUREL about the financing of religions

Since 1 January 2000, it is possible for all officially registered and acknowledged faith communities to have their membership fees levied by the state via the tax system. This service is free for the Church of Sweden as part of the disestablishment agreement between state and church. Other faith communities have to pay for it, but receive, on the other hand, a general financial state support which is not offered to the Church of Sweden.

EUREL (Sociological and legal data on religions in Europe and beyond) states that 47 faith communities are currently receiving state grants which are of three different kinds:

1) Organisational grants enabling provision of religious services, pastoral care and education,

2) Project grants of three kinds; a) for the building of new premises or to adapt premises for handicapped people, b) for the cost of education abroad of pastors, imams, etc. aimed to serve a faith community in Sweden, c) for the initial work to establish a faith community of recently arrived immigrants,

3) Grants directed to support specific activities that the state wishes to subsidise, e.g. hospital chaplaincy and theological training at certain theological colleges.

Figures from the year 2019 show that 8 million Euro were distributed in state support to minority faith communities. The major part consists of the organisational grants which are distributed according to an estimate of the number of people that the respective faith community serves; a figure which may include more people than the actual members.

In 2019, organisational and project grants were distributed (in thousand euros) to the Pentecostal parishes in cooperation (1000), Equmenia Church (900), the Roman Catholic Church (900), Inter Act (Evangeliska Frikyrkan) (370), seven Muslim organisations (1300), National Evangelical Missionary Society (EFS) (250), eighteen Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Churches (1150), Swedish Alliance Mission (163), Mandaean Community (80), Buddhist Cooperative Council of Sweden (76), eight minor Christian denominations (176), Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities (55), Salvation Army (55), Alevi association (28), The Adventist Church (23) (Nämnden för statligt stöd till trossamfund, SST. Utbetalda statsbidrag 2019).

The case of Jehovah’s Witnesses

In her final report (A/HRC/55/47/Add.2) presented on 1 March 2024 at the 55th session of the UN Human Rights Council, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Nazila Ghanea wrote in the section titled “Engaging with and support to religion and belief communities:

“There is no legal requirement in Sweden for religious groups to register or seek recognition. However, only faith communities registered with the Legal, Financial and Administrative Services Agencies (Kammarkollegiet) are eligible to receive government funding and tax exemptions similar to those of nonprofit organizations. Such registration requires that the group fulfills requirements including that it has operated in the country for at least five years, has a clear and stable structure, can function independently, serves at least 3,000 persons, and has several locations in the country. The Rapporteur notes that Jehovah’s Witnesses were only registered in 2019 after an extensive 12-year litigation and subsequently awarded compensation by the Chancellor of Justice in 2021. As of January 2024, the Swedish Humanists (Humanisterna) have been accepted as a life-stance organization.”

On 6 August 2007, Jehovah’s Witnesses applied to the Swedish government to register in order to receive state grants. During the next ten years, the government repeatedly turned down their requests. Its decisions were successfully challenged three times in the Supreme Administrative Court of Sweden.

On 24 October 2019, after 12 years of legal battle, the government finally had to acknowledge Jehovah’s Witnesses’ right to state grants, admitting that they fulfil all requirements. In addition, on 21 October 2021, the Chancellor of Justice awarded them damages amounting to SHE 8,510,000 [USD 886,000] recognizing that the process had been unjustifiably long and thus in violation of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

However, new legislative initiatives threaten this progress achieved.

Religious statistics

According to the Church of Sweden statistics 2020, 55% of the population (5,7 million) are members of their Evangelical-Lutheran Church.

According to government statistics and estimates by religious groups, other Christian groups, including the Roman Catholic Church, Pentecostal Movement, Missionary (or Missions) Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), together total less than 6 percent of the population.

The Finnish Orthodox Church and Georgian Orthodox Church are also present in the country.  According to a 2016 Pew Research Center estimate (the most recent available), 8.1 percent of the population is Muslim.

According to the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities, Jews number approximately 15,000.

Humanists Sweden, the largest humanist organization, claimed in 2016 to have 4,500 members.

Smaller religious communities include Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Mandaeans, and members of the Church of Scientology, Word of Faith, International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church).

Further reading about FORB in Sweden on HRWF website