LITHUANIA: Lutherans Protest Property Confiscation in Vilnius.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 27 April 2001

The leadership of Lithuania's Evangelical Lutheran Church has expressed concern and bewilderment about a court decision earlier this month in the capital Vilnius to confiscate properties handed back to the church in the early 1990s. `We do not understand this step the authorities have taken,' Bishop Jonas Kalvanas told Keston News Service. According to the Lutherans, the city council argues that the properties were returned `inappropriately', although Ieva Dunajevaite, a spokeswoman for the city council, was unable to explain to Keston why the government decided to bring the court action to take back the properties. `I can't answer for the government,' she told Keston on 27 April.

Irena Vaicekauskiene, deputy head of the department of justice and property restitution of Vilnius city council, admitted that the buildings had originally been returned under the law on restitution of places of worship and other property to religious communities. However, she told Keston by fax on 27 April that at a hearing on 18 April the first court of the city had agreed to a request from a government representative lodged back in 1996 that the December 1992 restitution of three houses to the church should be annulled. She added that on 30 April a lawyer for the church is due to come to the city council to discuss the court ruling. Keston was unable to reach Sigitas Bargaila, a Vilnius city lawyer who represented the council in court, as he was not in his office on 27 April.

Arden Haug, an American Lutheran pastor in Vilnius, told Keston on 27 April that the church council was informed on 18 April that the city authorities and central government would be making a decision over previously returned properties. `The court decided that the city council had acted inappropriately when it returned properties to the Lutheran Church,' Haug told Keston. `It was, therefore, at this time, re-nationalising and thus confiscating the property.' The Lutherans complain that the court ruling violates the law that restitution that took place more than five years ago cannot be challenged.

Vilnius' Lutherans managed to regain their 16th century church on Vokieciu street in the old city at the end of the communist period, during which it had been confiscated and turned into a workshop and a basketball hall. In the early 1990s, in accordance with the country's restitution laws, it was also able to regain five houses surrounding the church, all but one of which are now being used for church charitable or youth work or are being restored for use as an old people's home. One of the houses is still inhabited by five families who were promised resettlement in alternative accommodation by the city council at the time that house was returned, although the council has failed to do so. It is not clear if all five houses have now been taken back or just the three specified in Vaicekauskiene's fax.

Keston was unable to contact Mindaugas Sabutis, pastor of the Vilnius parish, as he is currently out of the country. Darius Petkunas, a pastor from the port city of Klaipeda and consistory member, complained to Keston on 27 April that the decision to confiscate the property had been taken `secretly'. Bishop Kalvanas, speaking to Keston from Taurage the same day, said he had only learnt about it a couple of days earlier. `The Vilnius parish initially tried to sort out the problem themselves,' he reported. `However, we are now preparing a letter of protest from our consistory to the government.'

Senior Lutherans blame the government that came to power last year. `All the church council members and consistory regard this incomprehensible move as a step against unprotected religious minorities,' Pastor Petkunas declared. `We experienced this from the communists, but this is the first time it has happened with our government since independence.' Some Lutherans privately state that the government would never contemplate such a move against the Catholic Church, the dominant religious community in the country.

Bishop Kalvanas speculated that the value of the church property - which he estimated at some 3 or 4 million litas (525,000 to 700,000 British pounds or 750,000 to 1,000,000 US dollars) - might have been the motivation for the decision to seize them back. (END)