LITHUANIA: Unrecognised Even After 150 Years?

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 24 May 2001

Having been refused recognition as a `traditional' faith under Lithuania's complex four-tier system, despite existing in the country of at least 150 years, the Baptist Union is hoping parliament will next month grant them the status of a `recognised' faith. However, many Baptists and members of other minority faiths accuse the government of granting unfair privileges to the nine `traditional' faiths (see separate KNS article), so that even if the Baptists achieve second-ranking status they will still be denied key rights - such as the right to buy land to build churches.

Under Lithuanian law it is parliament which rules on religious organisations' status. The Baptist Union application was considered by the parliamentary human rights committee on 16 May, which decided to pass the application to the full parliament, which is due to debate and vote on the application on 14 June. Public debate has also been initiated via the parliamentary website, where ordinary citizens can give their views. `As of today, the absolute majority of views are in favour of the application,' Linas Andronovas, Executive Secretary of the Baptist Union, told Keston News Service by telephone on 22 May. `There are 47 in favour, only nine against.'

The Union first applied to parliament, the Seimas, for `traditional' status on 8 November 1998. Parliament then passed the application to the Ministry of Justice and the State Security Department for their assessments. Eventually the human rights committee rejected the application before it reached the floor of parliament. In a letter of 9 June 2000, signed by committee chairman Emanuelis Zingeris, the committee cited a justice ministry recommendation that the Baptists be given the status of a `recognised' faith. `They gave no reasons why we were rejected,' Andronovas complained. `It was just stated that the committee decided the application should not be taken further.'

Donatas Glodenis, senior official of the section of registers at the justice ministry, attributes the rejection to the unwritten rule that religious groups need to have been present for three or four centuries to be eligible for `traditional' status. `Obviously, the Baptists do not match the criterion, for they have existed in Lithuania for 150 years.'

The Baptists then applied to parliament on 31 July 2000 for `recognised' status, despite still desiring recognition as a `traditional' faith. Gediminas Dalinkevicius, chair of the Human Rights Committee, presented it to parliament only on 20 February of this year, despite a legal requirement that such an application should be considered within six months. `We're puzzled as to why it has taken so long,' Andronovas declared. He speculated that one reason for the delay could be that the procedure has never been used before. `If the Baptists are granted state recognition, they would be the first group to attain such status,' Glodenis told Keston from Vilnius on 23 May.

Keston sent written questions on 22 and 23 May to Gediminas Dalinkevicius, chair of the parliamentary human rights committee, and Gintaras Steponavicius, deputy chair of parliament and a member of the human rights committee, asking why the Baptists had been refused traditional status and whether they would get recognised status, but both failed to respond. Reached by telephone on 25 May, Steponavicius promised to send his responses, adding that he believed parliament would grant the Baptists recognised status. Dalinkevicius was unavailable by telephone on 25 May. (END)