mercredi 2 septembre 2015


The recent redefinition (2013-2015) of the relationship between the State and so-called recognized religions is currently the major issue animating the religious landscape in Luxembourg. This reform comprises a substantial reduction of the State’s future financial support for religions. It also brings about public recognition of Islam, its representatives having been invited for the first time at the negotiating table. Next to these moves monopolizing media attention, a recent major development seems to go largely unnoticed by the authorities and by public opinion: the staggering success of the Pentecostal ‘megachurches’ originating in the Protestant-evangelical movement.

Traditionally, State-Church relations in Luxembourg were grounded on dispositions inherited from the Napoleonic period. Translated into the Constitution, they provide for freedom of opinion while offering, to this day, substantial advantages to religions that have concluded a convention with the State, advantages that include remuneration of the clergy. For the Catholic Church, the financing of its fabrics and the maintenance of places of worship constitute additional benefits, along with the inclusion of religious education in all public schools (primary and secondary levels). On the other hand, these dispositions often submit those religions that are under State agreement to a certain level of State control, as the local hierarchy must meet public authorities’ approval. Over the years, the State’s commitment has been gradually extended to other religions (Protestantism, Orthodoxy, Judaism, Anglicanism).

In practice, the system has mainly benefited the Church of Rome, the Grand Duchy having remained, for historical reasons, a largely catholic country. Not only does the Church collect the bulk of the windfall (23,72 of the 24,60 million euros distributed by the State Department in 2014, not including subsidies for church fabrics), but it is also the only religion allowed to organize religious classes in primary and secondary public education.

This relational architecture has been shaken up by the arrival of the so-called ‘gambia’ government coalition (Liberals, Socialists and Greens) that came out of the October 2013 legislative elections. However, the religious war prophesied by some did not take place. Can we attribute the lack of turmoil to the relative pragmatism with which the different actors have handled the case?

Eventually politicians who had before sometimes put forward the idea of a radical separation following the French model put up with a situation of relative State neutrality towards religions. This change was brought about by the realization that a 2/3 majority of deputies’ votes would be needed to carry out the constitutional reform required by the implementation of the new program, a compromise with the Christian-Social opposition thus proving indispensable.

In practice, we are witnessing the end of the payment of the salaries of ministers of religion by the State, but the maintaining of a gradually diminishing public funding for religions with an agreement. The global envelope will progressively pass from 24,6 to 8,3 million euros (of which 6,75 million for the Catholic Church).

The abolition of church fabrics will free municipalities from any financial obligations. Catholic religion classes in primary and secondary public schools will be suppressed. In the symbolic field, an event without religious reference has since 2014 replaced the Te Deum, which traditionally acted as the official national holiday ceremony.

The catholic hierarchy, the first to be concerned, quickly gave in to political demands. It has been noted that it did not, contrary to what had been observed on previous occasions (notably in 2009 during the debate on the law on euthanasia and assisted suicide), trigger violent articles in the press upon which it retains control. This conciliatory attitude may have been induced by the fear of losing everything. Since 2012, recurring polls have suggested that Luxembourg’s population is predominantly in favour of the separation between the State and religions (TNS ILRES, August 2012, ordered by the Socialist Party - 66 % - and January/February 2015, ordered by Politmonitor RTL-LW - 61 %).

The conclusion of negotiations with the government also allowed for the removal of the question of Church-State separation in the June 7 2015 referendum, which was organized to consult the population on the new constitutional dispositions. On January 25 2015, new agreements between the State and representatives of the Catholic, Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox Churches and the Jewish and Muslim religions were signed.

Since then, the agreement reached at the national level has been undermined by tensions at the base. Some subjects, such as the abolition of catholic religious education in public schools, the content of the values-based education program ​​that should replace it, and the fate of church fabrics clearly spark anger.

Concerning the first subject of discontent, it appears that unanimity does not reign among the faithful, some accusing the archbishop of having given up too quickly. The movement ‘Fir de choix’ (‘for choice’) opposes the project of a single compulsory values-based education ​​for all public school students and advocates maintaining the option of a choice between a denominational and a secular ethics class. Within months, a petition collected more than 25,000 signatures and the Fédération des Associations de Parents d’Élèves (a non-denominational organization overseeing all parent committees of pupils in public and private education) was rallied to the cause.

Conversely, representatives of secular associations are concerned about the turn taken by the preparatory work of the future values-based education class. They dispute the presence of representatives of recognized religions in the committees accompanying the reform and fear the return of religious education through the back door. As such, they worry about the possibility offered to the old denominational courses’ teachers to be eligible for teaching the new courses through enrolment in a continuous training program.

These debates actually reflect internal contradictions within public opinion in Luxembourg, contradictions which are widely revealed by various surveys, but are often ignored by those directly concerned, as they often undermine their views. Indeed, whereas polls about the relationship between the Church (Churches) and the State since 2012 have constantly shown large support for the abolition of the constitutional links, it is also clear that for most respondents, the main point of interest is putting an end to public financing. In times of economic crisis, the media exposure of speculative land gains made by some church fabrics is certainly no stranger to this lassitude of public opinion, which, according to statistics, even seems to affect certain catholic circles.

However, even if there is an obvious estrangement from traditional religions, for the time being it would go too far to read this as an affirmation of secular activism. For example, a November 2013 poll (TNS-ILRES, ordered by the Archbishop of Luxembourg) revealed that 27 % of the Grand Duchy’s residents said they were “without belief, but not with a particular position”, whereas 13 % declared to be “atheists” and 8 % “agnostics”; only 41 % claimed to belong to a Christian Church. The break with traditional Churches indeed seems to have been consumed. However, at the same time 72 % of all respondents said they favoured maintaining the choice between religious education and a secular ethics course in public education, a rate that reached as much as 76 % among pupils’ parents!

The fate of (catholic) church fabrics is a second stumbling stone. Indeed, their properties are to be handed over to a public fund to ensure future maintenance of places of worship. The fund will become the owner of the places of worship that will remain assigned to the catholic faith; others will become property of the municipalities, if legal obstacles can be overcome. This process promises to give rise to administrative and legal difficulties, the ownership of places of worship and presbyteries (do they belong to the municipality of the fabric?) often being difficult to establish. As the Interior Ministry is required to arbitrate disputes, it is not to be excluded that certain catholic circles will try to use the municipal autonomy lever to hinder a national agreement which they do not support. Representatives of 258 of the Grand Duchy’s 285 church fabrics have thus gathered in the Syndicat des fabriques d’église du Luxembourg (Union of Luxembourg church fabrics - the Syfel association), which is opposed to the suppression of fabrics and to the agreement reached between the Government and the archbishopric.

Beside the legal technicalities proper to the new agreement, it also had the effect of publicly recognizing Islam as an actor in Luxembourg’s religious landscape. Thus it will for the first time benefit from public subsidies. The new authorities have chosen to end the delay policy implemented by previous governments and to take into account a reality that is increasingly manifest. Although denominational surveys are no longer allowed, various intersections point to the fact that, based on the number of its practitioners, Islam is now the second religion in the Grand Duchy, the religion of 2,5 to 3 % of all legal residents. For the time being, this is largely an Islam of Europe, as most practitioners are immigrants originating from Bosnia and the Balkans. A small minority are Muslims born in Luxembourg or Muslims who have acquired citizenship.

The majority of Muslim communities joined a representative body, the Shura, which is the official representative of the Muslim faith, whereas official recognition also entails new obligations and responsibilities. Indeed, receiving public funding implies the approval of the representative instances by the government. Furthermore, representatives must position themselves more outspokenly with regards to societal issues. This policy was clearly implemented in 2014 when the attacks, which bereaved France, were publicly condemned. Nevertheless, the organized Muslim community is torn at the margins. The Salafist current, present in Esch-sur-Alzette, remains beyond its control, whereas press reports revealed that young people from this movement, among which many converts, had left for Syria or Iraq. In addition, the future arrival of mainly Asian and African refugees will put the community before the challenge of integrating believers with other cultural and religious backgrounds, whereas the question as to what will be the attitude of an almost exclusively Sunni community vis-à-vis the expected arrival of Shia believers can also be raised.

Meanwhile, the impact of another religious expression, the ‘megachurches’ ​​within evangelical Protestantism, has not yet been measured; so far, its representatives have not filed a grant application with public authorities. As yet no scientific study has been dedicated to this phenomenon, but various indicators suggest that it is well established, mainly in segments of the population originating from the Portuguese-speaking immigration (Portuguese, Cape Verdeans, Brazilians), which is well represented in Luxembourg. As exemplified by the organization ‘Centre d’Accueil universel’ (Universal welcoming centre), a centre belonging to the Pentecostal movement which is housed in the premises of an abandoned supermarket in Luxembourg City, Pentecostal representatives generally opt for very large places of worship such as old cinemas or shops. Currently the movement is spreading throughout the entire country, progressively establishing secondary venues. As it articulates its message primarily around issues of daily life - marital or parental difficulties, health problems, social success -, the option offered by Pentecostalism has largely supplanted that of traditional ‘catholic missions’. 

The above outlined developments show that over half a century’s time, Luxembourg’s religious landscape has changed from a near total monopoly of the Catholic Church to a more diversified situation in which new denominations are on the rise, along with the rejection of religious beliefs. The continuation of a constructive dialogue between believers and non-believers is a great challenge for the future, especially in a context in which oppositions have crystallized. It is not certain that all actors involved, in particular the Catholic Church (at present the main losing party), willingly accept this new reality. Evidence seems to suggest that rather than looking for societal dialogue, the Church aims to unify all religions in what could be termed a ‘confessional front’. A significant example: the Church has opened its grand seminar to the teaching of other religions, while positioning it as a reference on religions at university level. This will probably have the effect of countering the creation, at the University of Luxembourg, of non-denominational teaching about religions, an option that has been discussed in particular in 2013, on the occasion of  the  ‘Assises de l’Histoire’. 

Antoinette Reuter (Centre de Documentation sur les Migrations humaines, Luxembourg).

Retour en haut