Foreign funding of religious institutions in the Netherlands

Person placing euros in a church donation box

Stefan Redel/Adobe Stock

Undesirable influence through foreign donations to religious institutions is of concern to the Dutch government. Researchers broadened the scope of an earlier feasibility study to understand the funding sources of Catholic, Protestant and Islamic institutions.

What was the purpose of the study?

In the Netherlands, religious institutions are responsible for funding their own religious activities and primarily rely on donations from within their own community. They can also raise funds from other private individuals, foundations and private organisations, including foreign donors.

Concerns have been raised about foreign state influence via donations to religious institutions in the Netherlands and of influence from religious movements that advocate a legal system incompatible with the principles underpinning Dutch democracy.

Following a debate in the House of Representatives, the Netherlands Research and Documentation Centre (WODC) commissioned RAND Europe and Breuer&Intraval to conduct an independent study mapping the nature and size of the foreign funding of religious institutions in the country.

What was the study approach?

A 2015 feasibility study from RAND Europe found that there was not enough available evidence to reliably estimate the size of foreign funding of Islamic institutions in the Netherlands. So, for this study, which looks at the years 2016 to 2019, researchers requested information on funding sources from the religious institutions themselves. The study is also not limited to Islamic institutions; its scope includes Christian churches, many migrant churches and all identifiable mosques — the largest religious groups in the Netherlands.

The aim of the study was to get an understanding of the size of foreign funding of the religious institutions relative to the other sources of funding of the institutions within a denomination; and relative to other religious movements or communities. To do this, researchers conducted a survey among religious institutions which was complemented by desk research, interviews and the development of 20 case studies.

What did we find?

Foreign funding accounts for only a small portion of the income of the participating institutions. At the same time, foreign funding occurs among both Christian and Islamic institutions.

  • For traditional Christian churches, there are a few incidental cases of funding from individuals residing in countries neighbouring the Netherlands. Because of the historical nature of these churches in Dutch society, these churches (especially Protestant) can rely on a national instead of an international network. This is one of the reasons why foreign funding seldomly occurs.
  • Migrant churches often have close international ties between their congregants and their country of origin, for example through family connections or links between the church in the Netherlands and the foreign umbrella organisation to which the church belongs. A shortage of financial resources is one of the main issues migrant churches face which makes it more likely that these churches will also look for funding abroad.
  • Islamic institutions receive both organisational and occasional funding from abroad. The Diyanet mosques receive support from Turkey, as the Directorate of Religious Affairs of the Turkish government pays the salaries of their imams. The Moroccan government also sends imams to the Netherlands to support mosques during the holy month of Ramadan. Other types of support are more of an incidental nature. The financial value of such support ranges from several hundred euros to millions for the purchase or construction of new buildings.

Little can be concluded about possible undesirable influence. Very few institutions reported that the funding they received from abroad was conditional and none of these conditions could be regarded as ‘undesirable’, according to the definition of the Dutch Cabinet. Similarly, other sources provide little evidence that foreign funding comes with explicit conditions, such as regarding the appointment of board members or preachers.

  • However, even if it is unconditional, financial support from religious funds in countries such as Saudi Arabia or Kuwait to mosques with political Salafist influences could raise questions about possible anti-integrative, undemocratic or discriminatory influences on a religious community in the Netherlands.
  • The limited foreign funding to traditional and migrant churches on the other hand is much less likely to originate from unfree, undemocratic countries with interests that are at odds with Dutch or European interests.

The main source of income for religious institutions in the Netherlands consists of donations and contributions from members of their community.

  • Traditional churches tend to have a stronger financial foundation than churches, mosques and some migrant churches that were established more recently. Annually, the traditional Christian churches receive more structural income from donations, rent of real estate, or other assets and capital. At the same time, these churches often own large buildings or graveyards, which may require considerable maintenance and can therefore be expensive.
  • Several subsidies and charities support the maintenance of Christian churches as national or local heritage. Traditional churches are more likely to qualify for such (additional) financial support in the Netherlands; relatively new migrant churches and mosques tend to benefit less from such funding programmes. These ‘younger’ institutions tend to rely more heavily on their own members for their funding compared to the traditional churches.

How should this research be considered?

Owing to the very nature of the subject, and the serious methodological limitations and external factors, researchers have not been able to provide a quantitative estimate of the size of foreign funding nor a numerical estimate of the relative size of foreign funding. However, a bottom-up approach – requesting information from the institutions directly — has provided more information than what could be expected of a top-down approach based on the feasibility study of 2015.

Conducting scientific research to provide a reliable and comprehensive estimate of the nature and size of foreign funding, as well as potential influence, is a difficult task. This complexity is to a great extent caused by the nature of the required data sources. This research requires gathering confidential and sensitive information, which can be difficult to unlock through scientific research as it is dependent on voluntary participation and the availability of sources in the public domain. Should a comprehensive overview of undesirable influence be necessary, one may need to require the seizure of documents, enforce testimonies and/or gain access to confidential information. To order the compulsory disclosure of sensitive information is not compliant with the principles of scientific research.