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Finnish Jehovah's Witnesses not exempt from conscription, working group finds

A working group from the Ministry of Defence said that Finland's laws exempting Jehovah's Witnesses from military conscription should be abolished.

Alokkaan punkka ja sotilasmerkkejä takin hihassa.
File photo. Image: Marjut Suomi / Yle

The working group presented their report - which proposes that Finland repeal the exemption law - to Defence Minister Jussi Niinistö on Monday.

Every year in Finland some 20,000 young men take part in the country's mandatory military conscription programme. Instead of serving in the military, young men have the option of carrying out their national service in civilian settings.

But young Jehovah's Witnesses have had the right to refuse to serve the country - militarily or even in a civilian capacity - since 1987.

The topic of whether followers of the Christian denomination should be compelled to serve in Finland's military has been debated for years.

Teemu Penttilä, leader of the defence ministry working group behind the report, said the time to change the law has arrived.

"The civil service [system] has changed significantly in recent years. For example, religious communities now offer places of employment [in civil service]. There has been a clear societal change," Penttilä said.

Long history

Finland has been dealing with this issue for more than a decade. In 2006 a Defence Ministry working group examined the topic but did not reach any conclusions. A similar effort - this time consulting foreign experts - was carried out in 2009 but had similar results.

Efforts by defence ministers in 2011 and 2013 also failed to reach a solution. The subject re-emerged this year. In a pivotal ruling, the Helsinki Court of Appeal found that permitting male Jehovah's Witnesses to avoid conscription was discriminatory.

The implementation of the law protecting Jehovah's Witnesses from conscription more than three decades ago came as a response to criticism Finland received from the UN Human Rights Committee. The committee said it viewed conscientious objectors as prisoners of conscience and accused Finland of not fulfilling its international obligations.

Before the law changed in the late 1980s, every year dozens of Jehovah's Witnesses were jailed for not complying with conscription laws.

Increase in total objectors possible

Jehovah's Witness' spokesperson Veikko Leinonen has previously said Finland's laws on mandatory civil service violate the religious group's authority.

Leinonen warned that abolishing the exemption would result in a return to the situation before the law was instated, and that members of the church would rather choose to serve jail sentences than serve.

But the Defence Ministry's Penttilä disagreed, saying that the working group consulted several Jehovah's Witnesses representatives who vowed that no one would be excluded from the church for carrying out civil service duties.

"We're aware there's a risk the number of total objectors may rise. But the working group found that it will not be a significant increase," Penttilä said.

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