LITHUANIA: Property Confiscation - Lutherans and Municipality to Appeal.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 11 July 2001

More than a week after a court decision upholding the confiscation of four church-owned properties, the Evangelical Lutheran parish in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius is still awaiting an official copy of the ruling, the pastor's wife Vilma Sabutis told Keston News Service from Vilnius on 10 July. She confirmed that the parish will appeal to the Supreme Court as soon as it receives the text of the decision, which was issued on 2 July, though she said the parish had `very little hope' of a successful legal challenge. An official of the government institution in Vilnius county insisted to Keston on 10 July that the municipality's decision to restore these properties to the Lutherans in the early 1990s `was a violation of the property rights of the residents'. She declined to speculate whether the government would have moved to confiscate such properties had they belonged to the Catholic or Jewish faiths. `I don't know how to answer that,' she said. `Maybe not.'

The government institution lodged a request back in 1996 to revoke the municipality's restitution of the church-owned properties. Proceedings finally reached Vilnius district court on 18 April, when a hearing ruled to confiscate them (see KNS 27 April 2001). Although it was only a third party in the case, the Lutheran parish appealed against the verdict.

The appeal court heard the case on 25 June, but did not issue its verdict until 2 July. In its decision, the appeal court rejected the Lutheran parish's appeal for the district court judgment to be overturned and upheld the district court ruling. The appeal court argued that the parish's appeal to have the case re-heard was `not sufficiently motivated'. The parish now has three months to lodge the appeal at the Supreme Court.

Vilda Drasutaviciute, an official of the government institution in Vilnius county, admitted that it had been her institution - as the body that supervises the compliance of local authorities with legislation and the constitution - which had originally brought the suit to revoke the restitution order. `Our institution takes responsibility for its actions,' she told Keston from Vilnius on 10 July. (Neither the Lutherans nor city officials Keston spoke with had been able to discover which government agency had initiated the court action. `I tried to find out but it was impossible,' Sabutis told Keston.) However, Drasutaviciute said the institution's chief, Gintautas Gakimavicius, was not available as he is on holiday. It was his predecessor, she said, who had decided to initiate the action.

Church members feel the municipality should have done more to defend their rights. `Vilnius municipality (the respondent!) made no efforts to complain about the 18 April court decision,' church council member Kestutis Pulokas complained to Keston on 3 July. `We may only assume that the municipality considers church property confiscation beneficial.'

Despite such claims that the Vilnius city municipality had failed to support the parish, city officials told Keston the municipality did support the Lutheran position. In a written statement of 4 July, the legal department of the property rights department of the municipality insisted that its 1993 decision to restore these properties to the church had been legal, based as it was on a February 1990 law on restitution of places of worship and other buildings to religious communities. `Vilnius City Municipality supported the [25 June] appeal of the Vilnius Evangelical Lutheran Church,' the statement from the department chief Egidijus Vilkickas declared. Citing Article 23 of the Constitution on the inviolability of property, Vilkickas declared that the municipality `supports the rights of the Vilnius Evangelical Lutheran Church to restore their nationalised or otherwise unlawfully seized property' and would be appealing to the Supreme Court.

However, Drasutaviciute told Keston that the 1990 property restitution law had only a `declaratory' nature. She insisted that the legal case was against the municipality, not against the Lutherans. `The municipality had taken action which was not in compliance with the law. The government institution decided to take action.' She admitted that the property had belonged to the Lutheran church before 1945, but could not explain why the parish was not therefore entitled to continue to own it. (END)