The liberties of the centuries-old community of Anglicans in Denmark are being threatened by a draft law requiring all sermons to be translated and submitted to the state, the Church of England’s bishop in Europe has said.
Robert Innes, whose diocese stretches across mainland Europe, has written to the Danish prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, expressing his alarm at what he describes as an “overly restrictive” bind on freedom of expression.
The “several-hundred strong” Anglican community in Denmark centres around the early 19th-century Church of St Albans in Copenhagen’s Churchill Park, designed by Arthur Blomfield in the style of an English parish church.
Denmark’s parliament is expected to debate the legislation, known as the law on sermons in languages other than Danish, in the coming days, after the government said it was necessary to curb the growth of Islamist extremism.
Innes told the Guardian he feared the law, if backed in the Danish parliament, the Folketing, would be replicated elsewhere in Europe at a time when religious minorities were generally finding their freedoms being encroached upon.
“I am sure it comes from a genuine concern about the security of the estate and the monitoring of all religious minorities who might be perceived as a security risk,” Innes said. “I share the ambition of the Danish government to ensure safety and security and the desire that all religious organisations in Denmark conduct their act peacefully but to require translation of sermons into the national language goes too far. It goes in a concerning anti-liberal direction.
“In a democratic society I would hope the government would strive for better cooperation with religious organisations than hastily resorting to legislation interfering with their freedoms.
“This is a first which is why it is so important we find a way to address and encourage the Danish government to find another solution. Because my real concern is that if the Danes do it other countries may copy. That would be a very worrying development indeed.”
The government has said the aim of the law is to “enlarge the transparency of religious events and sermons in Denmark, when these are given in a language other than Danish”.
There is a growing level of concern at a perceived rise of Islamist extremism among the 270,000 Muslims who live in Denmark. Most of the sermons preached in mosques are in Arabic. But Innes said the Danish government should be working with religious organisations rather than resorting to a “negative and legalistic” attack on the rights of minority groups.
The bishop said it was unclear whether the law would require translations to be sent to the government before or after being given, but that in either case it was an impractical and illegitimate constraint.
He said: “Preachers don’t always write full text of their sermons, they might write notes. They might preach extempore as the archbishop of Canterbury sometimes does and there are questions of idiom and nuance which requires a high level of skill in translation of course. It is a high bar. It is a skilled art and it is an expensive skill as well.”
A range of European churches have also voiced their concerns, including the Evangelical Lutheran church in Denmark, the Lutheran World Federation, the Roman Catholic Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, and the Conference of European Churches.
Innes said there was a worrying trend towards impinging on minority groups across Europe. “There is a wide sense of concern about this. I am genuinely concerned at what I detect to be a growth of an anti-liberal government legislation and freedom of religion threats in Europe as a whole.
“This is not an isolated incident. I do think that we need to be alert to the encroachment on our freedom to practice our religions. Little by little, minority groups are being treated with increasing suspicion.
“For example, in Switzerland our clergy have been informed that they can’t work part time, they can only work full time, because there is a suspicion at what they might be doing in the other half of their time. In France, minority religious groups are required to have their accounts subject to a particularly invasive investigation and to re-register as religious associations every five years.
“I think overall there is a suspicion of people using languages that are not the native languages of the country concerned and that is in contravention of the article 9 of the convention of freedom of thought, comment and religion, which does guarantee for people to manifest their own religion and belief in worship teaching practice and observance, which must include the freedom to worship in your maternal tongue”.