Pagans demand status of traditional religion

  • 2001-11-22
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - Four Lithuanian MPs belonging to the ruling Social Liberal and the opposition Liberal factions have proposed giving pagans the status of a traditional religious community in Lithuania. The status of traditional religion guarantees state financial support. Presently nine religions have been granted this status.

The most active supporter of the pagans' rights is Social Liberal MP Gediminas Jakavonis, himself a practicing pagan and member of the ancient Balts' religious community, Romuva.

"We have some 2,000 to 3,000 members," he told The Baltic Times. This makes Romuva Lithuania's biggest group of pagans. He said that meant paganism has more followers than many small traditional churches that may present exaggerated figures about their members.

Pagan traditions never died in Lithuania. All the most popular Lithuanian holidays - Velines (All Souls' Day), Kucios (Christmas Eve) and Rasos (St. John's Day) - have pagan roots and were only slightly Christianized by the Roman Catholic Church.

Old German chronicles describe the ancient Lithuanian religion, while traces of paganism can also be found in Lithuanian folk songs. The KGB persecuted Romuva activists during the Soviet occupation. Romuva deserves some moral compensation now, Jakavonis believes.

Like most Romuva members, Jakavonis was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. But now he considers himself a follower of the religion of the ancient Balts.

The Roman Catholic Church is skeptical about Jakavonis' initiative. On Nov. 9, Sigitas Tamkevicius, archbishop of Lithuania's second largest city, Kaunas, held a press conference to present his views on this issue. He didn't mince his words.

"What is now being called the religion of ancient Balts is just a restoration of old village culture. It is ethnography, not religion," Tamkevicius said. On top of that, he said, giving pagans the status of traditional religion could cause tensions in society.

"It would provoke a confrontation. The opposition of the new pagans to the Church and to Christianity is well known, and an additional source of hostility in society would do no good either to the state or to individual persons," Tamkevicius said.

On Nov. 15, Vytautas Landsbergis issued a statement urging MPs not to recognize the current pagan community as a traditional religion. "There is no need for Lithuania to become famous as a country with a crazy Parliament," his statement read.

The Lithuanian constitution does not make provision for a state religion. The 1995 Law on Religious Societies and Communities designates nine traditional religions: Roman Catholics, Eastern-Rite Catholics (Uniates), the Orthodox Church, Old Believers, Reformed Evangelical, Evangelical Lutherans, Sunni Muslims, Jews and Karaites. Only these communities receive financial support from the state.

There are three categories of religious communities in Lithuania - traditional, recognized and others. "Traditional religions are those that have a history in our country of more than 300 years and significantly influence the country's life," Julius Ratkus, religious affairs adviser to the government, told The Baltic Times. "Recognized ones are those that have been in Lithuania for more than 25 years. Romuva is a registered community and belongs to the third category."

Ratkus said the word "pagan" in Christian tradition means "non-believer," so Romuva followers are not non-believers. "Christianity tolerated, adopted and cherished many so-called pagan traditions. And there are other groups claiming to be followers of the ancient Balts' religion. The question is, which of them should be registered as the traditional religion."

In pre-Christian times, Lithuanians, like ancient Greeks, Romans, Celts, Germans and Slavs, had an abundance of gods and goddesses. One of the principal deities was Perkunas, god of thunder and lightning. The place of worship, or "alkas," was usually a hill or confluence of rivers.

Lithuanians, the last pagans in Europe, were "baptized" as Christians in 1387 in what was largely a political decision of Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytautas and his cousin Polish King Jogaila. Catholicism played a decisive role in directing the medieval Lithuanian empire, the biggest country in Europe at that time, toward Western civilization.

But today, the pagans have an uphill battle. According to social surveys, some 80 percent of modern Lithuania's population of 3.5 million consider themselves Roman Catholics.