LITHUANIA: Baptists Achieve Recognised Status.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 13 July 2001

Lithuania's Baptist Union has expressed surprise and pleasure that the country's parliament, the Seimas, has finally approved its application for `recognised' status, the second rank under the complex and controversial four-tier system governing state recognition of religious organisations. `My first reaction was that I couldn't believe it,' the Union's executive secretary, Linas Andronovas, told Keston from Klaipeda on 13 July. `Everything had been going so slowly.' He reported that only the day before the vote the Union had been preparing a letter of complaint to senior officials over foot- dragging in the application, which was lodged in parliament exactly a year ago. Parliament had been due to consider the application on 14 June, but for reasons that remain mysterious consideration was postponed (see KNS 22 June 2001).

At its final plenary session yesterday (12 July), the Union's application (No. IXP-390) was approved with 45 deputies in favour and two against, with three abstentions. (As of 13 July, the decision still had not been posted on the parliament's website.) The Baptist Union thus becomes the first religious community to be given this status. Andronovas maintains there had been opposition to approval of the application from the parliamentary education committee.

`Recognised' status, although originally intended to grant greater rights than those available to groups who simply have `registered' status, currently confers no significant greater rights. `It gives only three extra advantages,' Andronovas reported. `We will not have to pay social and health insurance contributions for clergy and other employees, our clergy and theological students will be exempt from military service and we will get VAT exemption on services like electricity, telephone and heating. But the major rights are unchanged.' He points out that the Baptist Union will still be denied the right to teach religion in schools or buy land to build churches (ownership has to be registered in an individual's name). He believes Baptist churches may still not be able to recover VAT on individual purchases, although he says the `ambiguity of the laws' makes it difficult to establish this. The Baptist Union is keen that the original intention of the 1995 religion law should be adhered to.

Officials of the Justice Ministry interpret that law as giving the nine `traditional' faiths only an honorific status, while conferring the same rights on `traditional' and `recognised' faiths. `I hope very much that in the autumn the Seimas will proceed to amendments to grant second- rank churches and denominations equal rights with those of traditional faiths,' the Baptist Union's legal adviser, Arnoldas Matijosius, told Keston from Vilnius on 13 July. Andronovas also confirmed that `this is one direction we will be working in,' although he expressed some scepticism that parliament would approve such a change, despite support for the move from the Ministry of Justice.

Four other Protestant groups - the United Methodist Church, the New Apostolic Church, the Pentecostal Union and the Adventist Church - are seeking `recognised' status. All have been watching the Baptist Union application closely. Asked whether the Baptist Union decision would affect the applications of these other groups, Donatas Glodenis of the Justice Ministry believed it would. `It will not help directly, as parliament's decision concerned only the Baptist Union,' he told Keston from Vilnius on 13 July, `but the door is now more open than it was. Once the first group gained recognised status, it has made it easier for others to acquire it.' Despite being present in Lithuania for more than 150 years, the Baptists were refused `traditional' status last year by parliament's human rights committee without a parliamentary vote, although they continue to desire this status. (END)