LITHUANIA: Pentecostals Watch Parliament's Ruling on Baptists.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 4 June 2001

Lithuania's Union of Pentecostal Churches is among Christian minority communities watching closely whether parliament votes on 14 June to grant the Baptist Union the status of a `recognised' religious faith (see KNS 25 May 2001). `Our union has prepared the documents for the recognition application, but we will await what happens with the Baptist Union,' Bishop Rimantas Kupstys, the head of the Pentecostal Union, told Keston News Service from the Lithuanian capital Vilnius on 31 May. `Maybe we will see our parliament requiring something "extra", and we will try to adjust our papers to that.'

Although the government recognises nine faiths as `traditional' – and grants them a wide range of rights denied to all other faiths – no religious communities have yet acquired the second-tier status of a `recognised' faith, although this grants few rights which third-tier, registered religious communities do not have. The application from the Baptist Union, lodged in July 2000 after it was refused status as a `traditional' faith, is the first to reach parliament, the Seimas, although applications have also been lodged by the United Methodist Church (in October 1999) and the New Apostolic Church (in July 2000). Like the Pentecostal Union, the Adventists have also told Keston they are preparing to lodge an application, although they too are watching how the Baptist Union application proceeds.

Bishop Kupstys reported that the Pentecostals have operated in Lithuania since 1912, with the first congregation being registered in 1923. From 1931 - during the independence period between the wars - the Pentecostal Church was registered as a country-wide religious community. `After World War II, because of communist government policy, Pentecostal congregations were forced to join the Baptist Union of the USSR,' he added. `Pentecostal congregations were able to form the Pentecostal Union only in 1991 when Lithuania regained its independence.' The Union now has 20 congregations.

Like most religious minorities, the Pentecostals object to the four-tier system which, Bishop Kupstys complains, `gives advantages to certain denominations'. `It is not the business of the state to judge what religious communities have the right to enjoy a favourable position and which ones must face disadvantages and undeserved suspicion from our society,' he added. `We hope getting recognition will improve the situation for us, but only God knows when Lithuanian society will understand the necessity to treat people equally. Maybe there will come a time, when this "hierarchical" system will become only something symbolic and will cease to serve as a tool for discrimination.'

Like other third-tier religious groups, the Pentecostals are unable to buy land in their own name for churches, being forced to buy it in the name of individuals. Bishop Kupstys also complains that his Church's theological students do not enjoy the same rights as students in theological institutions of the `traditional' faiths, whose social security contributions - which usually represent 30% of income – are covered by the state. `Our students have to pay it themselves in order to get free medical care.' There is also discrimination over pensions. `Retired ministers from traditional faiths get bigger pensions than our ministers, who have ministered the same time and paid the same taxes (in Soviet times income tax for ministers was among the highest).'

(There is no legal requirement that parliament consider applications for `recognised' status within six months - correction to KNS 25 May 2001.) (END)