Religious Recession-Religious Revival

  • 2010-10-21
  • By Monika Hanley

KRISHNA KRISHNA HARE HARE: Local Hare Krishnas take to the streets of Riga chanting their mantra.

RIGA - Long before the economic crisis gave people more time to reflect on their lives and contemplate their faiths, newer religions had begun to gain followers.  
A departure from classic Lutheran, Orthodox and Catholic Christianity, the Baltic’s are seeing a steady rise in (other) religions such as the Latter Day Saint movement (Mormon), Islam, Hindu, Buddhism and pagan revivals.
While it may be the youth that typically delve into alternative/Eastern religions, it does not explain the decline in the top three religions in the Baltic States (Lutheranism, Catholicism and Orthodox).

An interesting point was brought up by Mufti Jakubauskas, a Muslim leader in Lithuania, that perhaps the number of members are declining due to the number of people also leaving the country to seek work abroad.
Also it should be noted that calling this decline in religion recent is somewhat of a misnomer. The percentages for the top religions in the region were not high to begin with. According to the CIA World Factbook, Lutherans make up 19.6 percent, and Orthodox 15.3 percent of religious followers in Latvia, while 63.7 percent are ‘unspecified’. These statistics are down from 1935, when there was a recorded 55. 2 percent of the population listed as Lutheran, 24.5 percent as Catholic and nine percent as Orthodox. 

Granted, this should not come as much of a shock seeing as religion was banned during Soviet times. In addition, this area of the world was one of the last pagan strong holds, only officially converting to Christianity in the 13th century.
The first crusaders arrived in the Baltics in 1198 after losing Jerusalem to Saladin in the late 1100s. These crusaders, more commonly known as the Brothers of the Sword (or the Livonian Order) arrived with Bishop Bertold, beginning a campaign of Christianization by force and founding a bishopric in Ikskile, upstream from Riga. The famed Bishop Albert came a few years later (complete with 23 ships and soldiers) and transferred the leadership to Riga. Despite this forced Christianization, pagan practices were never completely extinguished and many pagan holidays are still celebrated today (Jani, Martini, Mikeli, even Lieldienas (Easter) and Ziemassvetki (Christmas) were once pagan holidays).  However, as described further, paganism is making a comeback in all three Baltic nations.

For hundreds of years, the shores and inlands of the Baltics have been home to many diverse people, cultures and religions. Nowadays, minority religions are showing their face, and gaining members, especially the Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Baha’i and Hinduism, in addition to Islam and LDS. 
The rise of these so-called “minority religions” can be broken down into two groups: First, those who are ethnically tied to one religion and the second, religious seekers-those who actively search out a religion.
One of these religious seekers was Gunita Graudupe, now a missionary and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS-Mormon).

“In my case it was I was seeking a church, but it is not often that people find a church that way. I always believed in God and I searched and read about Buddhism and Hinduism but I couldn’t find one that suited me well. So I prayed about it, to find a church where I could feel his power. After a few weeks I met the missionaries in the street,” Graudupe told TBT. She then went on to serve as a missionary in the U.S.
Not only confined to the center, the LDS has four buildings in Riga, two in Imanta and two in Riga (two Russian and two Latvian).

“I was living in Imanta, there is a church building there and so I came and visited and felt this is what I was looking for,” said Graudupe.
The story is the same for many, which is why the LDS church continues to see a steady rise in new members based on the work of missionaries, often visible on the streets of Riga. In addition to the usual missionary work, the church also provides free English lessons.

“We have a free English course where we don’t talk about the religion but we do offer to if they want to learn about it. Some people, after a while, feel the friendly atmosphere and they start to ask questions This is one source how people can find a church,” explained Graudupe. 

Islam in Lithuania, now currently on the decline due to an exodus of Lithuanian people, has been in the region for at least 600 years. Back in the days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, many Crimean Tatars were relocated to Lithuania, bringing with them their religion-Islam. Today there are several thousand active Muslims in Lithuania, most of Tatar decent along with Lithuanians. However, those numbers are declining.
Lithuania’s Sunni Muslim spiritual center - Muftiato - Chairman, Dr. Mufti Jakubauskas spoke to TBT about Islam in Lithuania and the Baltics.

“In addition to Tatars we also have other nationalities- Uzbeks, Azeri’s and Caucus region people but we are no different than the other Lithuanians,” Jakubauskas explained. “Recently we also have a few Arabs, but very few,” he went on.
In terms of discrimination, Lithuanian Muslims have faced very little, unlike their neighbors in Estonia and Latvia. From the beginning the government supported the Muslims and quite a few mosques were built in the country hundreds of years ago from government funds, only to be demolished during Soviet times.

Estonia and Latvia face a different situation. The religion faces a bit more adversity due to fewer numbers and a more recent arrival of the religion. While Muslims in Estonia claim that there are well over 10,000 practicing the faith, the 2000 census reports just over 1000. Latvian Muslims are also fewer in number than Lithuania, though the ethnically Tartar makeup is a common trend as well, though immigration was within the last hundred years. Dr. Jakubauskas attributes the lack of government and local support in Estonia and Latvia due to the relatively junior status of the religion in the area.
“Its quiet here. We don’t have any problems here, nothing unusual I think. It is different than other places. Muslims have lived here for more than 600 years, so we have a good reputation. Also not all regions have the same history, but people know us. And we have a good name. In Latvia it is different, it is a more new thing. Estonia as well- only 120 years,” explained Jakubauskas. In addition, Lithuania has the largest active membership with 7,000-10,000.

Dr. Jakubauskas told TBT that Islam is on the decline in Lithuania, but that it had nothing to do with the religion. “We are no different than other people in Lithuanian who wish to leave to find a better job. The population of Lithuania is decreasing, and along with that also our members.”
Currently they are awaiting the go-ahead and government promised land to begin building a mosque in the capital-Vilnius.

Tina, an economics student from the University of Latvia explains why she chose Buddhism. “I was raised Lutheran and went to church, but it was like no one cared, it was just something you did. I found Buddhists to be more open and free and very much passionate about their faith, they had more answers for me.”
In Latvia in the last decade or so, Eastern religions have grown significantly in popularity. Flash back 100 years and the situation was drastically different. The first Latvian Buddhist monk Karl Tennison (famous for being the father of Buddhism in Estonia and Latvia) declared himself a Buddhist and was arrested for violating Russian laws on religion. At the last turn of the century, Eastern religions held more promise that the ‘rich’ religions of their Christian overlords. A population of workers, Latvians and Estonians could identify more with the down-home Eastern attitudes and the religions became popular with young workers.

The same is true today among young workers and students. Today Latvia has a total of five Buddhist congregations with about 100 members. A sect of Hinduism-Hare Krishna’s have a booming ten congregations and number around 500. According to the Latvian Bible Association, the popularity of yoga at the most recent turn of the century also led to an increase in followers of Hare Krishna, though the first Hare Krishna society was formed in 1936 (as the Latvian Association of Yoga). A rather humorous observation is the promotion of Hare Krishna in tourist magazines and guidebooks, citing “Hare Rama” (the Hare Krishna restaurant in Riga) as one of the best places to eat. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness in Riga is also famous for giving out around 500 meals per day to the impoverished or homeless. The Baha’i religion (with about 200 active members in Latvia) has also been on the rise since 1990 and is very active in some of the more disadvantaged areas.