Kaljulaid turns down church

Oliver Kund
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Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

President Kersti Kaljulaid is the first Estonian head of state who turned down a church service in her honor on her inauguration day. What will become of cooperation between the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK) and the president in the future remains unclear.

Monday, October 10. The presidential couples arrive at the palace square for an honorary parade of the ceremonial company at 3.45 p.m., immediately after Kaljulaid has given her oath of office in the Riigikogu.

The public, viewing the ceremony on television, is unaware that President Kaljulaid will have her first longer break of the day after briefly greeting the company: she will not have to be at the Kadriorg Art Museum to host officials and diplomats before 5 p.m.

The unorthodox break was caused by the president's agenda differing from that of her predecessors by a single item: it lacked a religious service, the tradition of which was founded by Lennart Meri.

President Arnold Rüütel attended the service on his inauguration day on October 8, 2001 at the St. Mary's Cathedral in Tallinn, as did President Toomas Hendrik Ilves on October 9, 2006. EELK Archbishop Urmas Viilma said that Kaljulaid turned the offer down.

“I congratulated Mrs. Kaljulaid on the day of her election over the phone and informed her of the tradition of a service for the president and our preparedness to honor it. The president-elect promised to consider it,” Viilmaa recalled.

A few days after the election the church was notified by the Office of the President that she had decided not to hold the service. “These are decisions the president makes herself; however, I'm sure it is difficult to find the right balance between a person's wishes and institutional tasks,” the archbishop said.

Viilmaa recalled that the tradition was called to life by President Lennart Meri who wanted the service to take place at the St. Mary's Cathedral. The tradition to mark the inauguration of the head of state with a church service hails from Scandinavia.

“I believe that a custom of 25 years can be considered a tradition. All three previous presidents of re-independent Estonia have honored it and in some way made it a part of the inauguration process,” Viilmaa said.

There is definitely no row between the church and the president. The archbishop suggested that the service might have been canceled because the president only had a week between her election and inauguration. Surely too short a time to give the president enough time to contemplate the tradition.

Viilmaa also said that EELK was prepared to discuss and change the procedure if necessary. For example by having an ecumenical service that would have involved representative from all Estonian Council of Churches members.

Kadriorg has not replied to the archbishop yet, while Viilmaa hopes he will get the chance to talk to the president soon. “The church's participation in state protocol events needs to be agreed on as we are headed for a number of red-letter days in which representatives of the church have played an important role recently,” he said.

As Kaljulaid has promised to be a president for everyone, Viilmaa rather expects broader cooperation between the president and the church.

The president's PR adviser Taavi Linnamäe said that a person's relationship with religion and its intensity are very personal matters, and that it is equally true regarding the president. The public currently has no idea of that relationship.

“I value greatly the work done by churches and congregations in communities and the role they play in the lives of their members. We have common topics to discuss, and I'm sure we will find a suitable form of cooperation,” Linnamäe assured.

The Office of the President said that it remains unclear whether the president will involve the church in celebrating Christmas and the anniversary of the republic, as well as how, seeing as these activities are still in the planning stage.