RIGA - Under the leadership of Juris Lujans, last year the Economy Ministry earmarked 1.7 million lats (2.4 million euros) of state money to so-called "sacred tourism," in the hope that the funds would help increase the number of visitors at holy sites. The money was part of state-allocated resources for repairing churches across the country,
Lujans, a member of Latvia's First Party, a centrist political force that prides itself on the number of priests among its founders, as well as its efforts to reconcile the nation's Latvian and minority constituents, is currently running for mayor of Riga. Although unlikely to win the spot, his party could gain a much-needed boost in the elections thanks to sizable sponsorship for Christian organizations.
Latvia's First Party, which came to power in the October 2002 parliamentary elections, has seen ratings plummet after the past two years. Their popularity has taken a harsh beating over the course of three coalition governments, although the party's weight in Parliament grew when it welcomed five members of the leftist National Harmony Party.
Now, however, the party is aiming at the Riga city government, whose 60 seats are up for grabs in the March municipal elections. But unlike many other Latvian parties that often try to appeal to as broad a base as possible, Latvia's First Party has a clear target constituency 's the Christian faithful.
The party's cadre of priests include Interior Minister Eriks Jekabsons, Special Task Minister for Children Affairs Ainars Bastiks, and Janis Smits in Parliament.
In an effort to shore up support among the nation's believers, the party is even reaching out beyond Latvia's borders. Oskars Kastens, a prominent party member, proposed inviting Rocco Buttiglione for talks on Christianity. Buttiglione, a former designate to the European Commission, is a conservative Roman Catholic who was castigated by the European Parliament last fall after he called homosexuality a "sin."
"They have been trying to do a lot of things to get into city government before the elections," said Aigars Freimanis, a sociologist with pollster Latvijas Fakti.
In Riga, the situation is complicated by the fact that the capital has a large number of noncitizens who cannot vote. This lowers the threshold of passing the 5 percent barrier to as little as 8,000 to 20,000 votes, Freimanis said. He put the number of Riga residents who could vote for the party of the cloth at 5.8 percent.
But how effective in garnering votes can pouring state money into religious organizations be? Some are claiming that even parish priests have been telling their patrons to vote for Latvia's First Party.
And while members of traditional churches may be less swayed by political rhetoric, membership in the so-called New Age Christian churches 's an affiliation to which Juris Lujans reportedly belongs 's may prove to be enough to bring Latvia's First Party into municipal government.
But reports of budget funds being used to prop up churches and "sacred tourism" have fomented controversy. One such allocation was a 44,000 lat gift to the Christian Aid Fund, founded by the leaders of the Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, Baptist and Orthodox churches in Riga. The money was reportedly not even earmarked to any specific area.
Last year the state was even more generous to the religious organization, granting a total of 66,000 lats.
Transport Minister Ainars Slesers was unable to explain how the money would be used. When asked how the resources would be allocated, he reportedly said, "The goals will be found after the money has been given."
Slesers himself is allegedly one of the biggest sponsors of the Christian Aid Fund.
Direct donations to the religious fund came from a 1.5 million lat fund for external budget, or discretionary, spending, where money was also given to national partisans, the agricultural university, and many other areas.
"This is the type of discretionary spending that exists in nearly every type of Parliament in the world," political commentator Karlis Streips said. "Latvia's First Party is trying to appear very holy. Whether this will lead to an increase in sacred tourism, God only knows," he added.
Many in the tourism industry questioned the decision to allocate resources to churches for sacred tourism at the time, arguing that there were other more important priorities.