The Religious/Secular Divide: The Danish Church as Mediator?

Like many other European countries, Denmark is experiencing the growth of a Muslim minority, which is often viewed with suspicion in a predominantly secular country. This paper asks if it is possible for the Danish church to have a role in mediating among their fellow religious citizens, the Muslims, and secular Danes. Could it be that Danish Christians, who share characteristics with both groups, could help to build understanding between them? We suggest that this is a possibility because it might be easier for people with a common religious worldview to understand one another than it is for religious and secular people to do so. At the same time, secular Danes are used to relating to the church as an integrated part of Danish society.  

The Christian and Muslim Danish Minorities 

Denmark is a paradox when it comes to religious matters. Although there is freedom of religion, there is no equality of religion, as the state sponsors only one church – the Evangelical Lutheran Church called Folkekirken, the “People’s Church.” It receives some twelve percent of its income from the state, but its largest source of income is the church taxes paid by its members. Most Danes – 84.7 % in 2001 – are members of the church, yet very few of them actively participate in it.  A 1998 study by the Danish National Institute of Social Research found that only four percent of church members attended church at least once a month1. Thirty-six percent said they never attended church at all, and another thirty-six percent only went on major holidays such as Christmas. Thus, only forty percent of church members attend services even once per year, and most of the four percent who do attend regularly are elderly.

As the study shows, relatively few people in Denmark are religiously active, and even most of those who consider themselves church members want the church to change dramatically. According to a 2003 public hearing by the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, the members want all world religions to be incorporated into the People’s Church, and they want many traditional doctrines – such as the virgin birth, the Trinity, eternal damnation, and the resurrection of the dead – to be abolished from the church in the future2. If these observations are accurate, it is fair to question whether most church members should be described as Christian at all.  If church attendance and belief in historical Christian doctrine are the standard for who is a Christian, then most members of the Danish church are not. Still, according to the hearing, most members wanted to keep in the church ideas such as love, forgiveness, and peace. They also want the Ten Commandments, Jesus as a role model, and rites such as baptism, marriage, and burial to remain intact. Still, most Danes can be considered “Christian” only in the loosest sense of the word; they accept those aspects of Christianity that fit into their secular worldview and are ready to disregard the rest. 

Thus, the four percent of Danes who practice traditional Christianity could be considered a minority population, just as religious Muslims are. About three percent of the Danish population is culturally Muslim, although not all of them practice their religion. A common perception among culturally Christian Danes is that immigrants from Muslim countries are substantially more religious than they themselves, but the truth of this is a matter of debate. Lissi Rasmussen, the head of the Islamic-Christian Study Center, estimates that about ten percent of Danes and fifteen to twenty percent of Muslims take an active interest in religious matters and self-identify as religious people. “You have to remember that most Muslims are actually equally secularized,” she says.  “Religious Muslims are simply more visible to people, largely because of the media.”  Fatih Alev, an imam of Turkish descent who is active with the Study Center, says the assumption that Danish Muslims are more religious than other Danes “is not 100% true, but also not 100% false.” He suggests that Muslims in Europe are taking a greater interest in their religious practice today because the prejudice that they experience from European society encourages them to search for a distinct identity. 

Whatever numbers we choose to trust, they leave us with two small minorities in the broader Danish society.  The conditions of the two minorities, however, differ greatly. The People’s Church receives state funding and has popular support from its membership within the broader population. The Muslims do not enjoy these advantages. On the contrary, Danes in general often regard Islam with suspicion and hostility. 

Can the Christian minority help the Muslim Minority?

Danes may disagree with practicing Christians but accept and support them, whereas Muslims are often seen as an alien threat. Because Christians are accepted by the society yet share a religious worldview with the Muslims, it should be possible for the Christians to serve as a mediator between the Muslims and the surrounding Danish society.

A serious impediment to such mediation, however, is a fraction within the People’s Church called Tidehverv, which has extreme views on both Christian exclusivity and Danish nationalism and which does not, therefore, tolerate Muslims in Denmark. Indeed, they have described Islam as a “demonic bondage of humanity to its own reason’s concept of God…a pseudo-faith…and a parasitic plant on the tree of Christianity”3. Two priests from this movement, Søren Krarup and Jesper Langballe, are members of Parliament for Dansk Folkeparti, the Danish People’s Party, which is known for its anti-immigration and anti-Islam platform. Likewise, there are elements within the Muslim society in Denmark that would seriously oppose these efforts, such as the group  Hizb ut Tahrir.  It is, of course, important to acknowledge that both of these groups are against dialogue, but both extremes constitute small minorities.  In addition, much discussion has already been devoted to these movements.  For these reasons it is most constructive for us to focus here on the more numerous tolerant members of both religions. For the purpose of this essay we will set aside the DPP and Hizb ut Tahrir and focus on quarters of the People’s Church that are more receptive to Muslims.

Tove Fergo, the Danish Minister of Ecclesiastical Affairs, welcomes the idea of creating understanding between Muslims and Christians and thereby helping the position of Muslims in Danish society. We spoke with her at a conference entitled “Co-existence Between Civilizations: Dialogue Instead of Conflict” that was arranged by the Islamic Association in Denmark and the Assembly of Muslim Jurists in America. She enthusiastically told us that “Christians and Muslims have their religious language in common, and this can give opportunity for dialogue between them.” When asked if the church has enough influence with the wider Danish population to persuade them to be more understanding towards Islam, she assured us that the People’s Church enjoys great respect in society, even among non-members, and that therefore it was quite capable of playing this role. 

Religion versus Secularism?

Despite the minister’s optimism and surety, we heard quite a different perspective when we met with Mohamed Mausuri.  When we asked Mausuri, who chairs the board of directors of the Islamic Cultural Center in Frederiksberg, if he thought that the church could play a role in mediating between Muslims and secular Danish society, he reacted with surprised laughter: “The Danish church?!?” When we reassured him that, in fact, we sincerely meant the question, he replied, “Sometimes yes, but mostly no. I’ve tried two or three times to talk to the church, and have been invited to deliver speeches in some churches, but nothing really happens after that. Ninety-five percent of the Danish people believe only in themselves.”  Mausuri sees Danish people as very busy and individualistic, and he would like to change that.  He wishes that they would become more Christian so that they would care more about their neighbors, and he thinks that ideally we should “take the best from each [traditional religious values and secular Danish values] and mix them together.”

Rune Engelbreth Larsen, a writer on themes related to the radical political right in Denmark and leader of the newly established Minority Party, was also present at the co-existence conference. Unlike other interviewees, he does not see a role for the church as an institution to promote understanding between Muslims and the secular society, but he acknowledges that there is a lot that individual priests and congregations can do. Still, the church as an institution remains paralyzed because “the churches are empty and the priests are divided on crucial questions.  Furthermore, the extremist priests from Tidehverv have too much influence in the People’s Church for it to act as an institution on these questions. Work like that has to be done on local level.” Larsen also pointed out that Danish Muslims are caught in a trap between the political right and left in Denmark. According to his analysis, the right wing does not accept them because they are Muslims rather than Christians. The left wing feels solidarity with them because they are socially marginalized, but they do not truly respect them because they are religious, and the left tends to regard religion per se as something medieval and oppressive. 

Fatih Alev, the Copenhagen imam, seems to agree with the last part of Larsen’s analysis. He does not regard Christianity as a threat to Islam in Europe but rather looks askance at certain currents of thought within secularism. “Secular people advocate their ideas in a missionary manner. The idea that all people should be secularists is a new totalitarian religion. France and Turkey are the strongest secular fanatics in prohibiting religious symbols. That is cultural imperialism,” he insisted. Fatih Alev sees Danes as hypocrites when they don’t recognize the right of religious people to have another opinion on matters such as evolutionary theory even though they talk of democracy and human rights. He speaks of “secularist fascists,” saying that although some secularists are open to dialogue, others are very closed-minded. 

When asked what role the church could play in mediating between Muslims and secular Danes, he answered that the church has the resources to do that but has not really attempted to, perhaps because of its dependence on the state. There have, however, been efforts from church leaders along those lines within the last few years, and he sees a common project for Christians and Muslims in opposing fanatic secularism. Like Mohamed Mausuri, Fatih Alev would like the Danes to become more Christian, both, as he said, to avoid God’s judgment, and to replace secular values with religious values as the framework of Danish society. This in itself is an example of the kind of rhetoric that secular Danes might be uncomfortable with and with which the Christian minority might be sympathetic. We will return to this point in the conclusions.

Envy and Fear

Anne Braad, the priest of Stefan’s Church (Stefanskirken) at Nørrebro, an area in Copenhagen with a high percentage of Muslim immigrant population, has been working to build understanding between Muslims and Christian for many years. She sees a clear role for the People’s Church in creating understanding towards the Muslims. “It becomes more and more obvious,” she said,  “that society needs the church to educate in human and Christian values. Danish people don’t know half as much about Christianity as they did only a generation ago, and this is very scary for us priests to see.” Priests are confused about Christianity as well, she says, using the example of the Grosbøll case, which has unfolded in Denmark this summer. The case concerns a priest, Thorkild Grosbøll, who was dismissed from his job for saying that he did not believe in a creating and maintaining God. Anne Braad, who is a personal friend of Grosbøll, judges that it was unwise of him to say so, but that the case reveals an extreme lack of knowledge about Christianity among both the laity and the clergy. “Danes envy the Muslims,” she says, “because the Muslims have a strong, well defined religion and the Danes want to have that as well. This creates fundamentalist tendencies in the church, which means that the church can no longer be as tolerant as it used to be.”  She says that the historic diversity of opinion within the church has always been strength for it, but now that people no longer have the background to understand the different positions, they simply become confused by the different claims that are made.  In return, their uncertainty about their own religion makes it more difficult for them to relate to Muslims.  Because religious conviction is something that most Danes do not share, they feel threatened when they see Muslims who possess it, even though many of them long for something similar. Having contact with people of a different religious background has made Danes more curious about what their own religion teaches and about what it means to have a religious view of the world, Braad says.  As a result, she has seen an increased interest in the church over the last several years. “This interest can either lead to tolerance or to fundamentalism,” says the priest. “Thus it is especially important for both Christians and Muslims to work to understand each other in a positive way.”


Despite the conflicts the Danish People’s Church is facing, it remains in a unique position between secular Danes and religious Muslims and it should use its position to attempt to bridge the gap between these two communities. But at the same time, it seems that the People’s Church is too vague as an institution, too diverse in its members’ views to take on such a task seriously.  Therefore, we do not see a role for the People’s Church as a state institution but a possible role for local priests and churches in preaching to their communities the importance of tolerance towards Muslims.  As Anne Braad’s Stefanskirken illustrates, this is a task that is already being performed at some churches.  Of course, this strategy naturally begs the question: If that the Danish churches are mainly empty, who will actually listen to the message?  Maybe our hope in the four percent of primarily elderly churchgoers is, after all, too optimistic. But keeping in mind that, according to the 2003 hearing, the members of the church actually wish for the church to take in other religions, a positive relationship with Islam might work to make the church more popular with its members, creating a more open atmosphere in the church. At the same time, the priests who spoke with us told us that the Danes have recently taken increasing interest in the church.

It may seem paradoxical that the church should be expected to teach about Islam. In fact, it is in the interest of the church to speak about it, just as that church should speak about any issues with which the society is struggling.  Because the role of Muslims in Danish society is a concern to many Danes, addressing the issue is essential for the church itself; if it does not address the problems that its society is wrestling with, it will only become more irrelevant in the lives of its members. As Braad says, “Unless you show the public that you share their concerns, they won’t believe a single word of what is said here at the church.” 

A necessary means of cultivating both inter-religious understanding and religious- secular understanding is by helping the laity gain a better grasp of theology and the ability to engage questions of religion and faith seriously. Now that more Danish people seem to be interested in religion, the church has an opportunity to improve their communication with the general population. The recent efforts to engage in study and dialogue with the Muslim community are an important initiative that should be expanded and encouraged. Danes will probably find it easier to understand Muslims if they develop a better understanding of their own religious heritage. Therefore, education in religion and religions in school should be encouraged.    

Churches should also take a stand against priests such as those in Tidehverv, who use inflammatory rhetoric about other religions. While these priests have the right to their belief in the exclusivity of Christian truth, it is essential in an increasingly multi-cultural society that they present their beliefs in a tactful manner that is more in line with Christian teachings on loving one’s enemy. While the freedom of belief within the church is to be commended, there needs to be a limit to such freedom at some point. True freedom, as Fatih Alev advised us, can only occur when it is underpinned by a framework of respect for others.  If that respect is lacking, freedom of belief and practice can be undermined by some of the very beliefs that it tolerates.  

It seems to us that these conclusions point in the direction of a need of greater freedom within religious life in Denmark. In our opinion, the People’s Church would be better off not being part of the state, because this would allow the different factions of the church to act in different ways. At the same time, separation of the church from the Danish state would create a truer equality of religion. Fatih Alev said that he wanted religious values to be the framework of the Danish state, and he feared fanatic secularism. A religious state can very easily become exclusive, though. Does not freedom and equality of religion require a state that does not favor one religion and tolerates all? 

When it comes to furthering understanding in Denmark’s general population regarding Islam, the Danish church is, we admit, not perfectly poised.  Still, with the church situated as it is—accepted by the secular populace and sharing with Muslims the possession of a religious, structured worldview—we are hopeful that local efforts can succeed in facilitating mutual understanding and tolerance among all segments of Danish society.




1 Socialforskningsinstituttet: Torben Fridberg: ”Kultur- og fritidsaktiviteter 1975-1998,” 2000.

2 Teknologirådet: "Hvorfor hvisker man i kirken? Rapport om borgerhøring og konference om fremtidens folkekirke," 2003.

3 Johannes Horstmann: ”Om at være muhamedansk flygtning eller indvandrer i Danmark,” 1998.

Personal interviews:

Minister of Ecclesiastical Affairs, Tove Fergo

Chair of the board of directors of the Islamic Cultural Center of Frederiksberg, Muhamed Mausuri

Writer and leader of The Minority Party, Rune Engelbreth Larsen 

Priest at Stefanskirken, Anne Braad

Priest and head of the Islamic-Christian Study Center, Lissi Rasmussen

Imam, Fatih Alev


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Denmark Denmark 2004


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