Religious freedom prevails, ghosts of the past remain

  • 2001-11-08
  • BNS
VILNIUS - A U.S. government report has said that religious freedom largely prevails throughout the Baltic states - with a few exceptions. Suspicions tend to linger about newer, non-traditional faiths in Latvia, while members of religious minorities have been subject to intolerance in Lithuania, where anti-Semitism persists.

These conclusions came from the International Religious Freedom Report released by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. The report, which can be read at, was released Oct. 26.

This is the most comprehensive open survey on the religious situation in the Baltics yet compiled. It deals with basic legislation and the government's behavior toward religious organizations, property restitution and religion-related incidents over a one-year period.

Orthodox friction

The bureau mentions a major international incident between the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, which has 59 congregations, and the Estonian Orthodox Church with 27 congregations, which is subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate.

On June 13, 2001, the Estonian Parliament adopted a revised law on churches and congregations that contained a provision barring the registration of any church or union of congregations whose management is undertaken by a leader or institution situated outside Estonia.

President Lennart Meri refused to publish the law, declaring that it was an intrusion into the freedom of religious worship.

The Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church was banned under Soviet occupation, but reregistered in 1993. But since then, a group of ethnic Russian and Estonian parishes that prefer to remain under the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church structure imposed during the Soviet occupation has insisted, unsuccessfully, that it should have the rights to the EAOC name.

In Jan. 2001 representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate submitted an official church registration application under the name of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. But the application was refused. The ministry gave the reason that it would be confused too easily with the existing Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church.

The unregistered status of the church makes negotiations on the issue of ownership of the Aleksander Nevski Cathedral, a prominent and valuable Tallinn landmark in the heart of the Old Town, problematic. The cathedral is currently owned by the city of Tallinn and rented out to its Russian Orthodox congregation on a decades-long lease.

This dispute over whether the Orthodox Church should be subject to Constantinople, as the EAOC is, or Moscow has taken on political overtones. Sensitivities remain from the 50-year Soviet occupation, the U.S. agency says.

The Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church is the largest denomination in the country, with 165 congregations and about 177,230 members. The majority of Orthodox followers are the country's Russian-speaking population, while the Estonian majority is predominantly Lutheran.

Atheist Latvia?

In Latvia, the three largest faiths are Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Orthodox Christianity. Unfortunately, no precise denomination membership statistics are available. But the churches themselves have given estimates: Roman Catholic (500,000), Lutheran (350,000), Orthodox (250,000), Old Believer Orthodox (schismatics who broke with Moscow several centuries ago, 70,0000), Baptist (6,000), and Jewish (6,000).

Perhaps a majority of the population in Latvia is atheist, the report suggests. However, the attitude of Lutherans toward churchgoing is well known to be more relaxed.

Orthodox Christians, many of them Russian-speaking non-citizens, are concentrated in the major cities. Many Catholics live in Latgale, in the east of the country.

The bureau acknowledges that the Latvian historical commission, under the sponsorship of President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, has continued to promote Holocaust awareness throughout society. This has included funding research into Jewish life, teaching materials for high schools and an international conference on the Holocaust in Latvia.

Catholic control

Lithuania is traditionally considered to be the nation with the strongest Catholic core in the region, not counting Poland. Unofficial estimates show that about 70 percent of Lithuania's inhabitants consider themselves to be Roman Catholic - some 673 communities in 2000.

The second largest religious group is the Orthodox Church with 180,000 members and 43 communities, which is concentrated in the east along the border with Belarus. Old Believers number 50,000 and have 27 communities.

Some 30,000 Lutherans (54 communities) are concentrated to the southwest. The Evangelical Reformed community has some 11,000 members, and there are about 5,000 Sunni Muslim and 5,000 Jewish members. Around 18 percent of the population does not identify with any religious denomination.

Many of the problems here are related to a four-tier system that exists of traditional, state-recognized, registered and unregistered religions. The first two can receive state subsidies, and they do not have to pay social and health insurance for clergy and other employees. And they are not charged VAT on electricity, telephone or heating.

Only "traditional" communities have the right to teach religion in state schools and buy land to build churches. Others have to rent it.

The third category, religious communities registered by the Ministry of Justice, cannot receive subsidies, tax exemptions or social benefits, but they can rent land for religious buildings. The unregistered communities can't even do that. But there are no reports that such groups have been prevented from worshipping or seeking new members.

Since 1999 the country's Jewish community has expressed increasing concern over anti-Semitic remarks made by some politicians. The comments continued during the period covered by the bureau's report. But political leaders and some of the national press did condemn the anti-Semitic statements of fringe political groups.

In April 2000, the country's Catholic Church issued an apology for the crimes committed by Lithuanians and the indifference of priests during the Holocaust. Little was done, however, to take this message to congregations around the country.