RIGA - With the 2007 Friendship Days fast approaching, debate surrounding the pride parade, the culmination of the Friendship Days events to take place in Vermanes Park in downtown Riga, is heating up. The event, scheduled for June 3, is expected to draw hundreds of participants from all over Europe, as well as a crowd of protesters who will likely try to disrupt the event.
Last year's gay and lesbian event in Riga was canceled 's a decision later ruled to be unconstitutional 's though a group of sexual rights activists decided to meet informally. For their efforts, they were pelted by eggs and excrement, which sparked a wave of indignation among equal rights activists and gays and lesbians throughout Europe.
This year the Riga Friendship Days and Pride 2007 will be a four-day affair, beginning May 31. It will include concerts, movies, presentations and exhibits. Human rights defenders and European lawmakers will be in attendance.
Latvia's anti-gay community is not pleased. In an open letter published earlier this month in the Ritdiena tabloid, Cardinal Janis Pujats, the Catholic Church's archbishop of Riga, called on people to protest the event and the government not to pass laws giving equal rights to homosexuals.
"For all Christians whose faith is a matter of the heart, and for all others who love their families 's you must be prepared to go out into the streets," the cardinal wrote.
Pujats called on the government to protect "the values of the traditional family against the licentiousness of homosexuals" and stop "this foreign-inspired action, in which a handful of people with questionable morals try to force the institutions of government to accept their perverse views."
Linda Freimane, director of Mozaika, a sexual minorities rights group in Latvia, stressed that the pride parade is not, in fact, a foreign inspired plot to destroy the Latvian family.
Freimane said that she hopes the pride parade could help to change misconceptions about the gay community in Riga. "[We hope] to encourage the community itself to speak out," she said. "As long as they don't there is going to be this myth that homosexuals are just a handful of foreigners living in Riga, and people would not understand that these are Latvians and Russians who live among us."
Freimane noted that the position of some politicians only exacerbates the problem. "What happens is that you have a small number of extremely homophobic politicians, and you have a big number of silent politicians," Freimane said. She noted that one of the worst politicians in that regard is ironically the current head of the parliamentary human rights committee, Janis Smits.
In last year's parliamentary debate surrounding the inclusion of a sexual minority phrase in anti-discrimination laws, Smits compared homosexuals to a societal "plague." He even went so far as to read a passage from the bible implying that homosexuality should be punishable with the death penalty.
Last year's events bode poorly for the upcoming friendship days. To be sure, the new interior minister, Ivars Godmanis, has promised to be more vigilant than his predecessor, who did not hide his hostile views toward gays and lesbians. Though police detained 14 individuals from among the anti-gay protest groups last year, they did nothing to prevent the overall threats of violence and often refused to provide safe passage for the gay rights participants from the three locations.
The event threw Riga into the world spotlight and drew heavy international criticism.
Freimane hopes that things this year will be better. "I think that this year it will be safe. The police are being very professional," she said.