LITHUANIA: Controversy Surrounds Four-Tier Religious Status.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 24 May 2001

Lithuania's minority faiths are unhappy at the four-tier system of government recognition accorded to religious groups, arguing that it discriminates against legitimate faiths even if they have existed in the country for at least three centuries. They regard the forthcoming decision on whether to grant the Baptist Union second-ranking status (see separate KNS article) as a test of the state's commitment to religious liberty, especially as applications by two other religious communities are pending, while another is about to lodge an application.

Article 5 of the 1995 law on religious communities and associations granted `traditional' status to nine faiths - Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Russian Orthodox, Old Believer, Jewish, Sunni Muslim and Karaite - without explaining how and why these groups were chosen. `Although it is not officially stated anywhere, the criterion for being a traditional religion used when preparing the law on religious communities and associations was that the community has to have a presence in Lithuania for 300-400 years,' Donatas Glodenis, senior official of the section of registers at the justice ministry, told Keston News Service from Vilnius on 23 May.

The second level - as a `recognised' faith - was originally intended to give similar rights to those enjoyed by `traditional' faiths. `The law foresaw a state recognition procedure for religious associations that have become a part of Lithuania's social, historical and spiritual heritage. When the religion law was adopted, the rights of recognised religious associations were equal to those of traditional associations, or, rather, there was a two-tier system: the upper level included state recognised "traditional" and "other" religious associations, and the lower level included other "non-traditional" associations and communities. What mattered was not the traditional/other divide but the state-recognised/other divide.'

Glodenis recounts that subsequent developments changed the original scheme. `Later, different legal acts were adopted that envisioned certain privileges (like land ownership) to traditional religious associations; thus, suddenly, a system was created made up of three tiers: traditional, other state recognised and non-traditional. I think that was a mistaken interpretation of the constitution and the law - it is mistakenly supposed, that state recognition means that the state recognises religious associations to be traditional, while in reality it was not so in the religion law.'

At present the third level - that of registered faiths - grants few specific rights and differs little from groups in the fourth category - those operating without any status with the state. Religious communities say acquiring registration is not difficult. `All you need is fifteen members, and you apply to the Ministry of Justice,' one Protestant leader told Keston. `If your statute does not contradict the law registration is easy.'

A constitutional court ruling of 13 June 2000 declared that once obtained, `traditional' status was `irrevocable'. The same ruling defended granting extra rights to `traditional' and other `recognised' faiths, declaring that `without limiting the rights guaranteed for all churches and religious organisations, additional rights for traditional churches and religious organisations may also be ensured by law which are not enjoyed by churches and organisations which are not traditional'.

Religious communities without `traditional' status are at a disadvantage. `There are important restrictions, including on the right to buy land, the right to teach one's children in public schools, the right to pay the same rates for water, electricity and telephone, and to speak on national TV and radio,' Arnoldas Matijosius, a Vilnius-based lawyer who has been handling the Baptist Union's recognition application, told Keston on 22 May. `If any religion is younger than 300 years on Lithuanian soil, generally any law can discriminate against its followers. Unfortunately, that is supported by constitutional jurisprudence.' Linas Andronovas, Executive Secretary of the Baptist Union, concurred. `In 1995 it was said recognised groups would be equal to traditional groups, but step by step all privileges have been whittled away. The only privilege now is that the government pays social security payments for clergy.'

Glodenis declined to discuss whether such discriminatory treatment was in accord with Lithuania's international human rights commitments and commitments as a member of the Council of Europe.

Glodenis reported that the United Methodist Church applied to the Seimas for state recognition on 5 October 1999 (the ministry subsequently asked for and obtained clarification of its history and practices), while the New Apostolic Church applied for this status on 28 July 2000. Asked if these two applications are likely to be successful, Glodenis responded: `The justice ministry has not completed the conclusions, so we cannot state our position yet. The ministry has to research the roots and historical heritage of a particular association, its teachings, position in society, etc. That takes time. Currently, the ministry is preparing a conclusion regarding the Methodists. The preparation of the conclusion on the New Apostolic Church is still pending, since the ministry does not have the capacity it needs to do all the work connected with religion.' An Adventist official told Keston on 25 May that his Church is also preparing to submit an application for state recognition later in the summer, though he said the Church was concerned `because if we are denied we have to wait another 10 years before we can try again'.

 Asked whether it was not unfair that parliament should rule on whether religious groups should gain `traditional' or `recognised' status rather than an independent court or the justice ministry, Glodenis declined to comment. `Since the Seimas has not yet decided on the state-recognition of any religious community, I cannot comment on its possible biases.'

Few officials seem able to explain why non-traditional faiths should not be allowed full rights, such as to buy land. `That restriction is based on provision 2.1.3 in the Constitutional Law on the procedure of acquiring ownership of land provided for in article 47, paragraph 2 of the constitution. It is worded positively, listing all the groups that can own land for non-agricultural use, but in a way that excludes the non-traditional religious groups.'

Glodenis indicated that the justice ministry did believe recognised faiths should also have the right to buy land. He cited a ministry letter of 8 May to the Adventists explained the provision in the constitutional law to mean that not only traditional, but also other state recognised religious associations could own land. `However, the justice ministry does not have a right to officially interpret the constitution and laws,' he noted. Adventist leaders told Keston that although buildings can be registered in the name of the church, the land itself has to be registered in the name of individuals.

Some minorities believe the length of time a group has been present in Lithuania should be a factor in determining state recognition, although insisting there should be no discrimination. `We would like to see a system that honours the presence of groups with long histories in Lithuania, yet which allows for equal privileges for all religious bodies,' David Markay, the Methodists' District Superintendent, told Keston on 24 May. `The Methodist Church and other denominations are helping to address social problems through the formation of Christian congregations and in providing medical help, economic development, drug and alcohol prevention programmes, and educational seminars. Hopefully, over time, such activities will help ease an understandable caution towards non-Catholic groups, to see that other church groups are also contributing positively to Lithuanian society.'

Gediminas Dalinkevicius, chair of the parliamentary human rights committee, and Gintaras Steponavicius, deputy chair of parliament and a member of the human rights committee, failed to respond to Keston's written enquiries as to whether the four-tier system did not discriminate against religious groups which did not have `traditional' status and whether such discrimination did not violate Lithuania's international human rights commitments, including those as a Council of Europe member. (END)