RIGA - Cardinal Janis Pujats, head of the Latvian Roman Catholic Church, issued a series of statements on March 13 denouncing a new national program aimed at preventing problems of intolerance of sexual minorities. The comments came in response to a letter sent out by the secretariat of the special task minister for society integration, Oskars Kastens. The ministry asked public organizations for opinions on whether issues of intolerance with regards to sexual minorities should be included in a new anti-discrimination program.
In his letter of response, the cardinal said that "the inclusion of sexual minorities in the national program would be a misunderstanding."
Cardinal Pujats explained that the problem of intolerance in Latvia is artificially created and has been blown out of proportion. He claimed that homosexuals provoke intolerance by "bragging about their immoral lifestyle and attempting to force it on other people with the help of legislation."
The cardinal voiced the opinion that in reality the Latvian people are "even-tempered and tolerant enough." In his words, "We do not believe that intolerance is a national problem in our country. There is no reason therefore to raise discrimination to the level of a national program."
Pujats said that because of this tolerance, the gay and lesbian community cannot be considered an endangered or discriminated - against group. He draws the conclusion that gay rights should be "deleted from the agenda" and "real problems," such as alcohol abuse, drug addiction, smoking and sexual promiscuity in schools should be dealt with instead.
The Catholic Church claims that there was no conflict between the public and homosexuals until 2005, when Latvia's gays and lesbians staged their first pride parade in Riga.
The 2005 Riga Pride parade sparked violent clashes between protesters of the event and police. Protesters hurled eggs at those participating in the march and attempted to block the parade's progress. The level of abuse directed at the participants of the parade drew heavy international criticism.
Anna Bokaldere, an official at Mozaika, an organization promoting gay rights in Latvia, said there are deeper issues than the clashes at the pride parade that need to be addressed. "The problems have always been here, they've just come to the public's attention since the pride [parade]. These problems need to be addressed, not just swept back under the rug," she said. "We do feel discriminated against."
Bokaldere contended with Pujats' accusation that the gay and lesbian community is provoking intolerance. "We are not asking for any special privileges 's only the same thing everyone else has," she said.
"We don't see ourselves as provocative. We are exercising our rights of free speech, and if someone has a problem with that, then we think it shows more about their character than ours," she said.
Liga Biksniece, head of the discrimination prevention department at the newly formed ombudsman's office, agrees that homosexuals are a group needing protection in Latvia.
"I think in general people are tolerant in Latviaâ€¦but there are problems, and we can say that in some situations these groups are in danger," she said.
Biksniece noted that while protection of minority groups is not always popular in the public, the state has an "obligation to protect them."