LITHUANIA: Will Catholic Candidate for Religious Advisor Be Chosen?

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 1 October 2001

More than six months after the resignation of Petras Plumpa as the government's religious affairs adviser, the long-delayed competition for the position has produced three candidates, the personnel office of the government told Keston News Service from Vilnius. One of them is the choice of the Catholic Church, the major faith in Lithuania. The successful candidate is likely to be chosen on 11 October. However, controversy continues about what role the adviser should play - and whether the government should have such an adviser at all (see separate KNS article). 'At first I thought they did not even intend to have this position renewed,' one official who wished to remain anonymous told Keston News Service in late September. 'So would it have remained had not the Catholic Church insisted on it.'

The post - for which there is a monthly wage of 3080 litas (521 GBP/ 770 USD) - was advertised in early September in the official gazette and by the closing date of 21 September the three candidates who had put themselves forward were Julieta Zirgzdiene, Julius Ratkus and Valdas Zubinas, reported Renata Sadzeviciute of the personnel office. Plumpa, who resigned last March over disagreements with the then prime minister, did not reapply (he was not eligible as he does not have higher education). The final choice will be made by a panel of four officials who will test each candidate for their competency.

'I was not aware that these three were the people in the competition,' Archbishop Audrys Backis of the Catholic Archdiocese of Vilnius told Keston on 1 October. Although Catholic leaders had earlier refused to identify their candidate for the post, he admitted to Keston that Ratkus is the candidate the Catholic Church proposed to the government. Asked why he believed Ratkus would be the best candidate, Archbishop Backis responded: 'Because he is of good Catholic background. He is studying law and is already making his mark. We do hope the results of the competition will be positive. We hope it will be someone who is a Catholic.'

Asked whether he believed a non-Catholic could fulfil the job's functions, Archbishop Backis declared: 'We hope this will not happen. The individual chosen has to be competent about what is a church or a congregation. In Lithuania it is quite difficult if you are not a Catholic. Anyway, practically all the other denominations - except for the Russian Orthodox Church - are very small. The Lutherans for example have just 15,000 adherents.'

'It is difficult to describe the functions of the job,' Sadzeviciute told Keston on 1 October, 'but the person is a normal adviser to the prime minister within the central office of the government. The main role is to prepare drafts of decrees, to maintain links with religious organisations and to advise the prime minister on religious issues. The functions are not very big.' Asked whether the role also includes the defence of religious liberty, Sadzeviciute declared: 'Of course. That is written in the constitution.' The qualifications for the job were, she added, a degree, preferably in a subject related to religion 'though not necessarily theology', and experience in this area, for example as a teacher in a state educational institution. 'It doesn't matter to what faith the person belongs,' Sadzeviciute insisted. She stressed that the appointment is indefinite and does not end with a change in prime minister.

Asked what had caused the delay in choosing a successor to Plumpa, she said this had been due to the 'position of our leaders', who were reconsidering the role, then to the change of government in July. She rejected suggestions that the government had been planning to abolish the post. 'The government does want a religious affairs adviser.'

Controversy surrounds the work of the previous incumbent. Plumpa, who is now 62, is a Catholic who served long labour camp terms in the Soviet Union for anti-Soviet activity and production of an underground Catholic journal. 'The Catholic Church proposed him for the job as adviser some years ago,' Archbishop Backis told Keston. 'He did good work.' Asked whether he believed Plumpa had served all religious communities, Archbishop Backis responded: 'I think so.'

Others, including representatives of non-Catholic religious communities, believed Plumpa mainly saw his role as enhancing the position of the Catholic Church and ignoring other faiths. 'Plumpa was certainly involved in anything but the protection of religious freedoms,' one official in Vilnius told Keston. Bishop Jonas Kalvanas, the head of the Lutheran Church, described Plumpa as the 'representative of the Catholic Church' who knew more about his Church than about other religious communities. 'A more objective person was needed,' he told Keston from Taurage on 1 October. Bishop Rimantas Kupstys, head of the Pentecostal Union, agreed. 'I heard his speech at a meeting in the Justice Ministry which clearly showed he took the side of the Catholic Church,' he told Keston on 1 October.

Archbishop Backis said Plumpa had resigned because 'no-one listened to him'. 'He was pushed to one side. He said he couldn't achieve anything and so preferred to leave.' (END)