LITHUANIA: Who Should Advise Government On Religion?

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 1 October 2001

As the Lithuanian government is poised to choose its new religious affairs adviser (see separate KNS article), discussion continues - especially among minority religious communities - about how the government should structure its relations with the country's religious faiths.

The central government's plans to reorganise the handling of religious affairs have stalled. Remigijus Mikalauskas of the government's central office told Keston from Vilnius on 1 October that a new religious affairs department was due to have already been established within the Justice Ministry, but it has been delayed for lack of funds. 'The department will be based around the two officials who have long been working in the ministry handling religious matters,' he declared. 'The department is now due to be inaugurated in January or February of next year.' Mikalauskas was unable to say what precisely the new department would do.

Last spring the previous government instructed the justice ministry to seek the views of the traditional faiths on whether and how to set up a religious affairs department. 'Our then minister decided we should consult all major faiths, not just the traditional ones,' Donatas Glodenis, head of the department of registers of the justice ministry, told Keston on 1 October. 'There were very varied responses. Some said we needed such a department, others not, that it would violate human rights. We passed these responses on to the government.'

Lutheran Bishop Jonas Kalvanas told Keston on 1 October that his Church had informed the justice ministry it supported wider representation for minority faiths. 'We underlined in our response the need to have a voluntary committee of representatives of different faiths helping minority communities,' he declared. 'The Catholic Church is the dominant faith and has unofficially become the state church whether it likes it or not.'

'Such an idea for an advisory committee has been floating around for five or six years,' Glodenis reported, 'but although many religious communities support this it has not gained wider backing. In any case, such a committee would be very different to a religious affairs department.'

Bishop Kalvanas insists it would be better to have a committee to advise the government on religious matters, rather than an individual. 'We want a committee of representatives of small communities to meet the government maybe once or twice a year. A Catholic representative does not always know our needs. If it is to be one person, we hope it will be someone who would help. We want a tolerant, objective person.'

Bishop Rimantas Kupstys, head of the Pentecostal Union, agrees that a committee would allow smaller religious communities to have their voices heard. He said it would be reasonable for several small communities to choose their own joint delegate to such a committee. 'If there is only one person in this job, as we had before, he will represent the position of the dominant religion, or at most the nine traditional faiths and the one recognised faith. We Pentecostals are not recognised.' He said if one person was chosen for the role, it was vital to have someone who only 'keeps the information', not someone who puts forward views. 'We should have a neutral person, a specialist. It's not democratic if the choice is that of the Catholic Church.'

During the summer, he reported, various Protestant Churches held informal discussions about proposing an advisory committee with representatives from different religious communities. However, no proposal was ever put to the government.

Catholic Archbishop Audrys Backis of Vilnius rejects suggestions his Church has no need of an influential voice close to the government. 'The Church still has problems on a juridical level. Agreements already signed between the Church and the government have not yet been ratified or executed, and many points need clarification. We are not even the owners of our churches and can't buy land. There is the question of religious education in schools. Very often laws are enacted which affect us, but we're not consulted.' (END)