LATVIA: Police Questioning Sets 'Dangerous Precedent', Say Lutherans.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 11 July 2002

The head of Latvia's small Confessional Lutheran Church has criticised what he regards as the "dangerous precedent" of police questioning of leaders of local congregations about their activity. Gundars Bakulis was summoned by the police of the old town district in the centre of the Latvian capital Riga at the end of May, at the instigation of the Religious Affairs Board of the Interior Ministry, the first time this has happened. "The police were surprised to receive this instruction and the police officer was very polite," he told Keston News Service on 11 July. "But this is a kind of spying. It is dangerous and I certainly think they should not be allowed to do this." In the northern town of Aloua in early June the police visited the church's elder Ouldis Krisjanis at home. "The people were really upset," Pastor Ilars Blome told Keston from Riga on 11 July. "Although the police were kind, in a small country town it is not nice when the police come to visit. People think there is something suspicious about you." Also summoned at about the same time in the northern Latvian town of Limbazi - in the absence of the pastor, who was in hospital - was an elderly lady, Anita Vitola, who rents the premises where the Confessional Lutheran congregation meets. "She found the experience humiliating," Blome said.

The Confessional Lutheran Church - which has nine congregations in Latvia with a further three being formed - has been denied registration as a "religious association" under Latvia's religion law, which does not allow more than one association of any one denomination from registering (see KNS 1 May 2002). It has registration as a "new religious movement", a lesser status requiring registration to be renewed every year for the first ten years.

Ringolds Balodis, the head of the Religious Affairs Board, said he had no knowledge of any police questioning of Confessional Lutheran leaders. "I have heard nothing about this," he told Keston from Riga on 10 July. "It could possibly have happened as the Confessional Lutherans are registered as a new religious movement." He said his Board writes to the municipal authorities and the local police where new religious movements are based, one month before re-registration is due each year, to ask if they have any objections to a community's re-registration. "One hundred percent said they had no objection," he declared. He denied that in these letters there was any demand that the municipal authorities or the police should question individual members of such communities. "We don't ask them to go and ask questions."

Pastor Bakulis told Keston that the police summonses came in the run-up to the renewal of registration, which the Religious Affairs Board granted on schedule on 12 June. The officer who summoned him showed him a long letter the local police had received from Balodis that "congregations of new religious movements are located in your police district. According to the religion law we require very specific and detailed information - you should tell us everything you know." The letter mentioned not only his congregation, but also a congregation of the New Apostolic Church. "The policeman called me to his office and I went on my own," Pastor Bakulis told Keston. "He told me: just write down what you want about yourself and your church. I wrote a statement about our church and its relations with fellow Lutherans in Europe and the United States."

While he accepted that he might be questioned as church leader, Pastor Bakulis was highly concerned about the questioning of the lay leader in Limbazi, which happened a few days before he was questioned in Riga. "It's one thing questioning a pastor - it's another questioning an ordinary church member. She was very distressed afterwards."

Ieva Zvede, head of the press department at the Riga city police, promised to inform Keston as to why Pastor Bakulis had been questioned, but she did not respond by 11 July. Sandra Pole, press officer of the Limbazi police, declared on 11 July that she would respond to Keston's questions within the ten day period required by law.

Pastor Bakulis felt the questioning of church leaders made them feel like "criminals". He described it as "strange" that the Religious Affairs Board was seeking this sort of information, as he has known Balodis for some years, the Church has had registration for the past five years and some three years ago he filled out an extensive questionnaire with details about the Church. Asked why he did not refuse to give this information, Pastor Bakulis declared: "I was so surprised to be summoned I didn't have time to think." He has also not protested about the questioning. "We have too much to do, organising our church, opening new congregations and establishing our training school for pastors."

The Mormons - who have three communities registered as "new religious movements" - report that for the first time this year the police visited their three congregations on 16 June. However, Gvido Senkans, president of the central branch in Riga, said he was not concerned. "They came at the request of the Religious Affairs Board to check up that we were not doing anything outside our statute," he told Keston on 11 July. "They asked questions, we answered them and that was it."

Balodis told Keston there are some 80 groups registered as "new religious movements". Keston has been unable to discover if other groups with this status, apart from the Confessional Lutherans and the Mormons, have had leading members questioned by the police. Edgars Endzelis, legal advisor to the Jehovah's Witness, said that in recent years community leaders have not faced police questioning. "We have eleven registered congregations," he told Keston from Riga on 11 July, "including the congregation in Daugavpils, which received registration again this month after losing it in 1999." He said the loss of registration had followed a complaint from Daugavpils city police which in turn had been instigated by Orthodox priests. "I have the strong impression that Ringolds Balodis invited the city police to give its opinion," he said of events in Daugavpils in 1999. However, he stressed that the problem has now been resolved.

Endzelis emphasised that, like the Confessional Lutheran Church, the Jehovah's Witnesses want to be able to register as a "religious association", something denied to them. Without this status, religious communities find it difficult to own property, do not enjoy tax-exempt status and cannot set up training establishments in the name of the religious community, Endzelis reported. They also face public suspicion.

One group that has been denied all forms of registration is the Autonomous True Orthodox Church in Latvia, led by Archbishop Viktor Kontuzorov. He told Keston from Daugavpils on 11 July that his Church - which now has 14 congregations with seven priests - has been denied registration completely for the past seven years under the religion law. He said he has to apply for permission from the Daugavpils city council on the two occasions each year his church holds a procession (krestny khod) around the church. He reported that his church had received permission earlier that day for a procession on 28 July, the parish's patronal feast. He said although he was given a fine of 200 lats (some 400 U.S. dollars) back in 1999 for "illegal trading" (because his church does not have registration it should not "trade" in icons or candles), there has been no pressure from the police recently. (END)