There was no change in the status of religious freedom by the Government during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion; however, bureaucratic problems persisted for some minority religious groups.
There were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief or practice; however, lingering suspicions remained toward newer, "nontraditional" religious groups.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has an area of 25,000 square miles and a population of 2.2 million. The largest religious groups, their percentage of the population, and number of adherents are: Roman Catholicism (22 percent--approximately 500,000 persons), Lutheranism (20 percent--450,000), and Orthodox Christianity (15 percent--350,000). Sizeable religious minorities include Baptists, Pentecostals, and evangelical Protestant groups. The once large Jewish community was virtually destroyed in the Holocaust during the 1941-44 German occupation. In 2006, according to official sources, 9,743 persons identified themselves as ethnically Jewish.
As of May 2007 the Board of Religious Affairs had registered 1,174 congregations. These included Lutheran congregations (304), Roman Catholic (251), Orthodox Christian (119), Baptist (94), Old Believer Orthodox (69), Seventh-day Adventist (52), Muslim (15), Jehovah's Witnesses (14), Methodist (13), Jewish (13), Hare Krishna (11), Buddhist (4), Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) (4), and 211 other congregations.
Interest in religion increased markedly following the restoration of independence; however, a large percentage of adherents do not regularly practice their faith. In 2006 religious groups provided the following estimates of membership in congregations to the Justice Ministry: Roman Catholics (500,000), Lutherans (450,000), Orthodox Christians (350,000), Baptists (7,240), Seventh-day Adventists (4,006), Old Believer Orthodox (2,843), Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) (926), Methodists (876), Muslims (380), Jews (305), Jehovah's Witnesses (178), Hare Krishnas (118), and Buddhists (75). Although no precise statistics exist, it is widely acknowledged that a significant portion of the population is atheist. Orthodox Christians, many of whom are Russian-speaking, noncitizen permanent residents, are concentrated in the major cities, while many Catholics live in the east.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected this right in practice. However, bureaucratic problems persisted for some minority religious groups. There is no state religion; however, the Government distinguishes between "traditional"--Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Old Believers, Baptists, and Jewish--and "new" religious groups. In practice this has resulted in increased bureaucratic regulations and requirements for "new" religious groups not applicable to "traditional" ones.
Jews are considered to be members of an ethnic group and can be listed as such in passports, rather than as Latvian or Russian. Prior to 2002, regardless of the bearer's wishes, all passports listed the bearer's ethnicity on the front bio-page as Latvian, Russian, or Jewish. In 2002 new passports were introduced that indicate ethnicity only when requested by the bearer. If the bearer requests that ethnicity be listed, it is listed on the backside of the bio-page.
Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter Monday are national holidays. For several years the Orthodox Church has been seeking official recognition of Orthodox Christmas, but the Government had not adopted this proposal by the end of the reporting period.
The Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox churches each have their own seminary. The University of Latvia's theological faculty is nondenominational.
There are two councils that comment on religious issues for the Government: the New Religions Consultative Council (NRCC) and the Ecclesiastical Council (EC). The NRCC consists of representatives of municipal institutions, law enforcement bodies, as well as persons representing the fields of education, culture, and social affairs. It meets on an ad hoc basis and offers opinions on specific issues, but it does not have decision-making authority. It has not published any information or warnings concerning "cults."
The Ecclesiastical Council is an advisory body organized in 2002 and chaired by the sitting prime minister. It includes representatives from major religious groups: Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Orthodox, Jewish, Adventist, Methodist, and Old Believers. The Ecclesiastical Council met during the reporting period to discuss five new draft laws on "traditional" confessions. The draft laws outline which religious groups are considered "traditional" (those that were present during the country's first period of independence), and further defines the relationship between the specific church and the state. Parliament was considering the five draft laws during the reporting period. Under current law traditional religious groups enjoy certain rights and privileges that nontraditional ones do not. It was not clear how the relationship between church and state would be defined and/or changed if the proposed laws were passed.
Although the Government does not require the registration of religious groups, the 1995 Law on Religious Organizations accords religious organizations certain rights and privileges if they register, such as status as a separate legal entity for owning property or financial transactions, as well as tax benefits for donors. Registration also eases the rules for public gatherings.
According to the 1995 law, any 20 citizens or other persons over the age of 18 who have been recorded in the population register may apply to register a church. Asylum seekers, foreign staff of diplomatic missions, and those in the country temporarily in a special status may not. Congregations that do not belong to a registered church association must reregister each year for 10 years. Ten or more congregations of the same denomination and with permanent registration status may form a religious association. Only churches with religious association status may establish theological schools or monasteries. The decision to register a church is made by the Board of Religious Affairs, a semiautonomous body within the Ministry of Justice. The director of the Board of Religious Affairs reports directly to the Minister of Justice. According to board officials, the board approves most registration applications once proper documents are submitted. The Latvian National Human Rights Office proposed to abolish the religious association membership requirement and reduce the new congregation registration requirement to 3 years. By the end of the reporting period, Parliament had not acted on this recommendation, and no legislation had been introduced.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
The Law on Religious Organizations does not permit simultaneous registration of more than one religious association (church) in a single confession. During the reporting period, the Government did not register or receive requests to register any offshoots of established religious groups. During the reporting period, 10 nonassociated Old Believer groups registered with the board.
In 2005 the Board of Religious Affairs again proposed amendments to the Law on Religious Organizations that would abolish restrictions on single association registration. However, neither the Ecclesiastical Council nor the Government had acted on this recommendation by the end of the reporting period.
Visa regulations require foreign religious workers to present either an ordination certificate or evidence of religious education that corresponds to a local bachelor's degree in theology, and letters of invitation. The process remained cumbersome, although the Government generally was cooperative in helping resolve difficult visa cases in favor of missionaries.
The law stipulates that foreign missionaries may hold meetings and proselytize only if invited by domestic religious organizations to conduct such activities. Foreign religious denominations criticized this provision.
The Law on Religious Organizations stipulates that only representatives of "traditional" Christian churches (i.e., Roman Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, Orthodox Christian, Old Believer, and Baptist Churches) may teach religion to public school students who volunteer to take the classes. The Government provides funds for this education. Students at state-supported national minority schools also may receive education on a voluntary basis on the religion "characteristic of the national minority." Other denominations and religious groups that do not have their own state-supported minority schools, such as the Jewish community, may provide religious education only in private schools.
Property restitution had been substantially completed, although most religious groups, including the Lutheran, Orthodox Christian, and Jewish communities, continued to wait for the return of some properties. The status of these remaining properties was the subject of complicated legal and bureaucratic processes concerning ambiguous ownership, competing claims, and the destruction of the Jewish communities to which properties belonged before World War II. The Jewish community expressed concern about the terms under which some properties were restored. The Office of the Prime Minister established a working group to address restitution-related concerns of the country's religious communities.
In 2006 a law was proposed that would provide compensation for approximately 200 communal and heirless private properties to the Jewish community. The proposal would create a centralized list of all the contested properties and the compensation requested for each item. By prenegotiating the list of properties with the Government, the Jewish community hoped to expedite the legislative process. While the cabinet approved the draft legislation on November 6, 2006, it failed on its first reading in Parliament on November 23, 2006, by a vote of 12 for, 6 against, and 67 abstentions. The Government can resubmit the legislation to Parliament but had not done so by the end of the reporting period.
There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the country.
Forced Religious Conversion
There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
In June 2007 part of a memorial under construction and dedicated to Janis Lipke, who saved 55 Jews from the Riga ghetto during the Nazi occupation, was stolen from a graveyard in Riga. However, there was no clear evidence that this was an anti-Semitic incident, since the items may have been stolen for their cash value. Of a total of 14 hate crime cases initiated in 2006, none was committed against Jews. Of a total of 13 hate crime cases investigated by the police in 2005, 2 were hate speech cases on the Internet against Jews.
The local Jewish community objected to a private showing in January 2007 of a play about the Beilis trial (which involved the "blood libel" allegation) that occurred in early 20th-century Russia. The performance took place at the Latvian National Theater (on a small stage that was available for public rental), and the local Jewish community stated that the work is clearly anti-Semitic and that its showing at the theater was a cause for concern.
Section III. Societal Abuses and Discrimination
There were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief or practice. Ecumenism, however, continued to be a relatively new concept in the country, and traditional religious groups have adopted a distinctly reserved attitude toward the concept. Although government officials encouraged a broader understanding and acceptance of newer religious groups, many citizens continued to doubt the validity of such groups.
The Latvian Historical Commission, under the sponsorship of President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, continued to promote Holocaust awareness throughout society. A monument to Janis Lipke was unveiled on July 4, 2007. In June 2004 the country was admitted as a permanent member of the International Task Force on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research. In July 2006 the country held its first Holocaust Remembrance conference, hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and presided over by the President. Participants included citizens and delegates from the United States, and Western, Central, and Eastern Europe.
Many government leaders--the President in particular--reacted to a perceived increase in public anti-Semitism by speaking out against all forms of xenophobia and appearing prominently at Holocaust-related commemoration events. The Government actively discouraged anti-Semitism, although anti-Semitic sentiments persisted in some segments of society, manifested in occasional public comments and resistance to laws and memorials designed to foster Holocaust remembrance. Books and other publications appearing in the country that address the World War II period generally dwelt on the effects of the Soviet and Nazi occupations on the nation and on ethnic Latvians, sometimes at the expense of comment on the Holocaust or some citizens' role in it.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.
During the period covered by this report, the U.S. Embassy worked to support the principle of religious freedom by engaging in regular exchanges with the President, the Prime Minister, and appropriate government bodies, including the Office of Religious Affairs, human rights nongovernmental organizations, and representatives of various religious confessions, including missionaries. The Embassy also held regular discussions with local immigration authorities and section meetings with the Department of Religious Affairs. Embassy officials maintained an open and productive dialogue with the Government's Director of the Board of Religious Affairs.
The Embassy actively supported the Latvian Historical Commission. It funded the travel of scholars to the United States for education on ethnic and religious tolerance, and of U.S. experts to the country for historical commission activities. In addition the Embassy worked with the Government to develop a Holocaust education curriculum for all students in grades 9 through 12. The Embassy funded the teacher training in curriculum development, production and publication of a Holocaust education curriculum, and teacher preparation to teach Holocaust history and awareness. The completed Holocaust curriculum was published in late spring 2005 and, following teacher training throughout the summer, was implemented in the 2005-06 school year in some history and social studies classes.
The Embassy, through a Democracy Commission Grant, also assisted with the production and publication of the book Jewish Cemeteries in Latvia, released in spring 2006.