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Lithuania - Religion

Roman Catholicism is the dominant and most influential religion. A 2007 poll commissioned by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) indicated approximately 80 percent of respondents are Roman Catholics. According to the 2001 national census (the most recent available), the Russian Orthodox Church, the second largest religious group, has 140,000 members (approximately 4 percent of the population) living mainly along the border with Belarus. There are approximately 27,000 Old Believers, Russian Orthodox practitioners who do not accept the church’s reforms in the 17th century; 20,000 Lutherans; and approximately 7,000 Reformed Evangelicals. The Jewish community numbers approximately 4,000, the Sunni Muslim community 2,700, and the Greek Catholic community 300. The Karaites, a distinct ethnic group in the country since 1397, have approximately 250 members.

Less than 0.5 percent of the population belongs to what the government refers to as “nontraditional” religious communities. The most numerous of these are Jehovah’s Witnesses, Full Gospel Word of Faith Movement, Pentecostals/Charismatics, Old Baltic faith communities, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, New Apostolic Church, Methodists, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).

The constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom. The constitution provides that a person’s freedom to profess and propagate a religion or faith may be limited only when necessary to protect health, safety, public order, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. The criminal code contains three provisions to protect religious freedom. The code prohibits discrimination based on religion and provides for punishment of up to two years’ imprisonment. Interference with religious ceremonies (only of traditional religious communities) is punishable with imprisonment or community service. Inciting religious hatred is punishable by imprisonment of up to three years, and legal entities can also be prosecuted for violations under this article. It is unlawful to make use of the religious teachings of churches and other religious organizations, their religious activities, and their houses of prayer for purposes that contradict the constitution or the law. The government may also temporarily restrict freedom of expression of religious conviction during a period of martial law or a state of emergency. The government has never invoked these laws.

Traditionally, Lithuania has been a Roman Catholic country. Although severely affected by Soviet repression, the Roman Catholic Church remains the dominant and the most influential denomination. However, Lithuania in the past has had two small but active Protestant denominations, the Evangelical Reformed (Calvinist) and the Evangelical Lutheran. In addition, Orthodox Christianity as well as Judaism have roots at least as old as those of Roman Catholicism. In 1991 a Western poll found that 69 percent of respondents in Lithuania identified themselves as Roman Catholics (in 1939 the percentage was 85), 4 percent identified themselves as Orthodox, and 1 percent professed Evangelical Christian beliefs. New in this self-identification was a large category--25 percent--who did not profess any religion. Lithuanian journalists have also noted that twenty-one out of the 141 new members of parliament elected in 1992 left out "so help me God" from the oath when sworn in as deputies.

Traditionally, most Roman Catholics in Lithuania were either Lithuanians or Poles, and the Orthodox and Old Believer adherents were predominantly Russians. This division has not changed, although currently it is no longer possible to assume religious affiliation on the basis of ethnic identity.

The Roman Catholic Church is the oldest continuously surviving Lithuanian institution. As such, it has played a dominant role in the development of Lithuanian society, especially crucial during those long stretches of time when Lithuanians had no state of their own. At first highly influenced by the Polish community, the church under Bishop Motiejus Valancius in the nineteenth century promoted Lithuanian language and publications, which prepared the country for the national awakening of the 1880s. Because Russian imperial authorities had forbidden the publication of Lithuanian books in the Latin alphabet, Valancius had them printed in German-ruled, Protestant East Prussia and then smuggled into Lithuania. The bishop also organized a network of secret Lithuanian schools. In 1918 the church supported the establishment of Lithuania as an independent and democratic republic. Years later, it endorsed land reform, and in the 1930s the bishops opposed and restrained Smetona's authoritarian rule. Under Soviet rule, the church served as a focal point of resistance and dissident activities. Its theological outlook, however, has been conservative.

In Lithuania between the two world wars, the Roman Catholic Church and other denominations had a constitutionally guaranteed monopoly over registration of marriages, births, and deaths. Religious education in public schools was compulsory. Although there was no established religion, all denominations received some state support in rough proportion to their size. The Soviet authorities totally separated churches not only from the state but also from individual support. On June 12, 1990, Lithuania's newly elected independent parliament adopted an act of restitution of the Roman Catholic Church's condition status quo ante but promised compensation for the losses suffered under Soviet rule and pledged cooperation on a parity basis. The constitution of 1992 guarantees "freedom of thought, religion, and conscience" to all and "recognizes traditional churches and religious organizations of Lithuania." Other religious organizations have to pass a test to ensure that their teachings do not "contradict the law and morality." All recognized churches are guaranteed the rights of legal persons and can govern themselves without state interference. Religious teaching in public schools is allowed if parents desire it. Religious marriage registration also is legally valid, as in the United States. The government maintains an office of counselor on religious affairs.

Jews began settling in Lithuania in the fourteenth century. In time, Vilnius and some other cities became centers of Jewish learning, and Vilnius was internationally known as the Jerusalem of the North. Between the two world wars, Jews developed an active educational and cultural life. The Jewish community, which did not experience large-scale persecution until World War II, was almost entirely liquidated during the Nazi occupation. Lithuania has struggled to deal with the effects of the Holocaust and the involvement of Lithuanians in it.

The large Jewish community was almost wiped out during World War II, and only several thousand Jews live in Lithuania today. In 1989 only 12,400 Jews were left in Lithuania, and emigration after independence had cut their number to an estimated 6,500 by 1994. The Jewish community was estimated to consist of approximately 4,000 persons by 2010. Anti-Semitism is common although, fortunately, incidents of violence have been rare in recent years. But the Jewish community has been fighting for more than a decade to win restitution of communal property stolen from it during the Nazi and Soviet occupations.

Anti-Semitism was manifest, especially on the Internet, and acts of vandalism were reported throughout the year 2011. On April 11, the Ninth Fort in Kaunas, the site of systematic mass killings of Jews during the Holocaust, was desecrated with 13 swastikas. On April 20, Adolf Hitler’s birthday, a banner with anti-Semitic slogans, including “Hitler was right” and “Juden Raus” (Jews Out), was found near a synagogue in Kaunas. On the same day in Vilnius, three Nazi-era German flags were found on a hill near the center of the city and another on the outskirts. Police initiated an investigation into the incident as a violation of public order. On April 25, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the speaker of the parliament condemned the incidents.

The government declared 2011 to be the Year of Remembrance for the Victims of the Holocaust in Lithuania. It sponsored several projects during the year, including events on September 23 commemorating the National Memorial Day for the Genocide of the Lithuanian Jews. In September President Grybauskaite awarded Life Saving Crosses to 55 Lithuanians who saved Jews during the Holocaust. Throughout the year the government and civil society worked together to promote Holocaust education in schools and preserve Vilnius’ Jewish cemetery. The government finished preservation of part of the ancient Jewish Snipiskes cemetery and in June rededicated it.

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Page last modified: 30-10-2012 18:58:04 ZULU