LITHUANIA: 'Bats More Important than Baptists'.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 22 June 2001

In the wake of an as yet unexplained decision by parliament not to discuss the Baptist Union's application for `recognised' status on 14 June, the Baptists' lawyer has accused parliament of making time for 36 other draft legal acts, including ratification of the Agreement on the Conservation of Bats in Europe, while failing to find time for their application. `Bats are more important than religious freedom,' Arnoldas Matijosius complained to Keston News Service from Vilnius on 22 June. However, an official of parliament has insisted to Keston that consideration `has not been abolished', although no new date has been fixed.

Matijosius claimed that parliament, the Seimas, changed its mind over the scheduled discussion of the application in the plenary session on 14 June (see KNS 25 May 2001) within 24 hours. He telephoned the parliamentary human rights committee on 12 June and was assured by the committee secretary that the application would be discussed. `Yet next morning I received an e-mail from the very same committee declaring that this item is excluded from the parliamentary agenda, without further explanations. Phone conversations with committee members are very difficult as I have to drag each and every word from them.' He claims the Baptists have received only a `vague apology'. `We are not so much concerned about our individual case, but rather about the totalitarian thinking which prevails among human rights committee leaders.'

Although politicians have been preoccupied with the choice of a new government following the resignation of Rolandas Paksas as prime minister on 20 June, Matijosius rejects claims that parliament has no time to discuss the Baptists' application.

Keston was unable to reach any members or officials of the parliamentary human rights committee on 22 June to learn why consideration was abandoned. `I have been unable to find out why parliament did not consider the issue,' Neringa Morozaite, assistant to the deputy chair of parliament Gintaras Steponavicius, told Keston from Vilnius on 22 June. But she insisted that the Baptist Union was likely to gain `recognised' status. `Opinions are quite optimistic. The human rights committee backed the move in May, so I think there will be no problem for the application to be accepted.'

Under Lithuanian law it is parliament which rules on religious organisations' status. As Baptists have been present in Lithuania for more than 150 years, the Union applied to parliament for `traditional' status in November 1998, the status that grants the most rights in Lithuania's controversial four-tier system. 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.

The Baptists then applied to parliament in 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. The application was considered by the human rights committee on 16 May, which decided to pass the application to the full parliament.

In a letter of April 2000 to the Protestant Alliance, Dalinkevicius had rejected Baptist claims that denial of status as a `traditional' faith represented a restriction on Baptists' civil rights or obstructed their activity. `Granting exceptional status is a certain privilege, giving a church some hope to receive state support, and when such status is not granted it is not discrimination,' he wrote.

The Union subsequently complained several times to parliament and the government about what it considered the unfair application of VAT laws, attempts to tax the incomes of ministers of `non-traditional' faiths, and restrictions on granting residence permits and `humiliating' treatment of foreign Protestant missionaries, including those from the United States and Ukraine, by immigration officials. Although some of these issues have been resolved after joint Protestant complaints, the Baptist Union remains unhappy about other privileges enjoyed by `traditional' faiths to which it is denied access - such as the right to buy land to build churches. However, if parliament approves recommendations from the Ministry of Justice to the parliamentary human rights committee (see separate KNS article), should the Baptists obtain `recognised' status they would then achieve the same privileges and rights as `traditional' faiths.

Two other Protestant groups - the United Methodist Church and the New Apostolic Church - have already applied for `recognised' status, while two others - the Pentecostal Union and the Adventist Church – are awaiting the outcome of the Baptist Union application (see KNS 4 June 2001). (END)