There was no change in the status of respect for 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.
There were some reports of vandalism of Jewish graves and monuments, displays of neo-Nazi sentiment, and anti-Semitic comments. Several media outlets published items expressing intolerance towards religious or ethnic groups. The political leadership usually criticized such statements and anti-Semitic acts when they occurred.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights and tolerance and in discussions on the country's strategy for addressing its Holocaust legacy. The U.S. Embassy promoted religious freedom and tolerance through various media and public speaking events and actively denounced the few acts of religious and ethnic intolerance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has an area of 25,174 square miles and a population of 3.38 million. Roman Catholicism remains dominant and influential. According to the 2001 census, approximately 79 percent (2,686,000) of the population considers itself Roman Catholic. As of April 2007 there were 685 registered Roman Catholic communities and associations (such as parishes, schools, and monasteries). The Eastern Orthodox Church, the second largest religious group, has approximately 140,000 members, with 52 communities located mainly along the border with Belarus.
Old Believers, Russian Orthodox practitioners who practice older rites, number 27,000 and have 62 registered communities. An estimated 20,000 Lutherans belong to 59 communities, primarily in the southwest. The Evangelical Reformed community has approximately 7,000 members in 17 communities. The 7 Sunni Muslim communities count approximately 2,700 members, while the Greek Catholic community has an estimated 300. The Jewish community numbers approximately 4,000. The majority of local Jews are secular, and only an estimated 1,200 belong to one of seven Jewish communities.
The Karaites have been in the country since 1397. Karaites speak a Turkic-based language and use the Hebrew alphabet. Some consider Karaites to be a branch of Judaism; their religion is based exclusively on the Old Testament. The Government recognizes the Karaites as a distinct ethnic group. Two houses of worship, one in Vilnius and one in nearby Trakai, serve the Karaite religious community of approximately 250 members. The Karaites' only religious leader is also their community president.
Some 0.23 percent of the population belong to what the Government refers to as "nontraditional" religious communities. The most numerous of these are the Full Gospel Word of Faith Movement, Pentecostals/Charismatics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and the New Apostolic Church. A total of 1,061 "traditional" and 179 "nontraditional" religious associations, centers, and communities have officially registered with the State Register of Legal Entities.
An estimated 9.4 percent of the population does not identify with any religious group.
Foreign missionary groups are active in the country.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
Article 26 of the Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected this right in practice. The Government at all levels sought to protect this right in full and did not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors. The Constitution provides that a person's freedom to profess and propagate his or her religion or faith "may be subject only to those limitations prescribed by law and only when such restrictions are necessary to protect the safety of society, public order, a person's health or morals, 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 2 years' imprisonment. Interference with religious ceremonies is also punishable with imprisonment or community service. Inciting religious hatred is punishable by imprisonment of up to 3 years and legal entities can 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.
There is no state religion. However, under the 1995 Law on Religious Communities and Associations, some religious groups enjoy benefits not available to others, including government funding, the right to teach religion in public schools, and the right to register marriages. The Law on Religious Communities and Associations enables all registered religious groups to own property for prayer houses, homes, and other uses, and permits construction of facilities necessary for their activities.
The law divides registered religious communities into state-recognized "traditional" religious communities, other state-recognized religious groups, and all other registered communities and associations. The Constitution recognizes "traditional" churches and religious organizations, as well as other churches and religious organizations, provided that they have a basis in society and their teaching and rituals do not contravene morality or the law.
Government authorities acknowledge as traditional only those religious groups that can trace their presence in the country back at least 300 years. The law enumerates nine traditional religious communities: Latin Rite Catholics (Roman Catholics), Greek Rite Catholics, Evangelical Lutherans, Evangelical Reformed Churchgoers, Orthodox Christians (Moscow Patriarchate), Old Believers, Jews, Sunni Muslims, and Karaites.
"Traditional" religious communities and associations may register marriages, establish subsidiary institutions, establish joint private/public schools, provide religious instruction in public schools, and be eligible to receive government assistance. Their highest religious leaders are eligible to apply for diplomatic passports, their clergy and theological students are exempt from military service, and they may provide military chaplains. The Ministry of Justice does not require traditional religious communities and associations to register their bylaws. Traditional religious communities do not have to pay social and health insurance for clergy and other employees, and they are not subject to a value added tax on basic utilities.
The law stipulates that the Government may grant state recognition to "nontraditional" religious communities that have societal support and have been registered in the country for at least 25 years. Nontraditional religious communities must apply to the Ministry of Justice and provide a description of their religious teachings and a founding statement signed by no fewer than 15 members who are adult citizens. The Ministry must review the documents within 6 months and make a recommendation to Parliament for final approval.
In practice state-recognized nontraditional religions receive some privileges from the Government, but not to the extent that traditional religious groups do. The Baptists were the only state-recognized "nontraditional" religion. They are entitled to perform marriages and do not have to pay social security and health care taxes for clergy and other employees. However, the Baptists do not receive the annual subsidies, tax exemptions, or exemptions from military service granted to "traditional" communities.
The Ministry of Justice's Religious Affairs Department is responsible for processing initial registration applications, but the State Register of Legal Entities, under the national Registry Center, manages the database of registered religious communities. Religious communities can file applications at local registration centers throughout the country. Registration centers forward new applications to the Religious Affairs Department and process renewal registrations locally. New communities affiliated with traditional religious groups register for free, while nontraditional communities pay a registration fee of $41 (105 litas).
Religious communities must register to obtain official status, which is a prerequisite for opening a bank account, owning property, or acting in a legal or official capacity as a community. Unregistered communities have no legal status or state privileges. However, there were no reports that the Government prevented any such groups from worshiping or seeking new members.
While only traditional religious communities receive annual state subsidies, nontraditional groups are eligible for government support for their cultural and social projects.
Following the restoration of the country's independence, the Government began returning religious communities' property confiscated by Nazi and Soviet occupiers. The law grants all religious communities equal opportunity to reacquire property once used for religious services and other activities. The Government successfully resolved a number of claims for restitution, mostly in the early and mid-1990s. Some claims were pending at the end of the reporting period.
No single government agency handles all religious issues. A department in the Ministry of Justice adjudicates religious groups' requests for registration. The Prime Minister's advisor for Cultural and Jewish Affairs follows relevant issues within the Jewish community.
The Office of the Equal Opportunities (OEO) Ombudsperson is authorized to adjudicate complaints about state institutions, educational institutions, employment, and product and service sellers and producers that discriminate on the basis of religion (previously, the Office heard complaints on gender-discrimination issues only).
The Parliament Ombudsperson examines whether state authorities properly perform their duty to serve the people. The law on the Parliament Ombudsperson specifically notes religious beliefs in defining the functions of the office. Both Ombudspersons has the authority to investigate complaints, recommend changes to parliamentary committees and ministries regarding legal acts, and recommend cases to the Prosecutor General's Office for pretrial investigation if warranted.
While there is some overlap between the two bodies, the OEO Ombudsperson appears to have greater authority to hear complaints of individual acts of religious discrimination.
The Jounalist Ethics Inspectorate has the authority to investigate complaints under article 20 of the Law on Provision of Information to the Public, which bars publishing material that "instigates war, national, racial, religious, social and gender hatred." It has the authority to levy administrative fines on newspapers under administrative law or refer cases to law enforcement authorities for criminal prosecution.
In 2000 the Government and the Holy See agreed to allow the Catholic Church to provide religious support to Roman Catholic members of the military through chaplains. In 2002 the Ministry of Defense and the Catholic Church signed a regulation on chaplains' activities. During the reporting period, there were 16 Roman Catholic chaplains providing services to the military. Other traditional churches and religious groups provide similar support. The chaplaincy may ask the Ministry of Defense to provide religious services for other religious groups based on need or requests from service members. The Ministry of Defense provides material support and places of worship.
Conscientious objectors may petition for alternative military service within military structures, but there is no option for alternative nonmilitary service, despite requests by members of Jehovah's Witnesses. Persons enrolled in alternative military service receive noncombat assignments but must follow military regulations and reside on military installations.
Religious holidays include St. Mary's Celebration (January 1), Easter Monday, Assumption Day (August 15), All Saints' Day (November 1), and Christmas.
The Constitution establishes public educational institutions as secular. The Law on Education permits and funds public school religious instruction only in "traditional" and state-recognized religious beliefs. In practice parents can choose either religious instruction or secular ethics classes for their children. Schools decide which of the traditional religious groups will be represented in their curriculums on the basis of requests from parents for children up to age 14 (after age 14, the pupil decides). During the reporting period, the Ministry of Education and Science received no complaints about any school not providing requested religious instruction.
The number of wholly private religious schools is relatively low. There were approximately 25 schools with ties to Catholic and Jewish groups, although students of different religious groups often attended these schools. All accredited private schools (religious and nonreligious) receive funding from the Ministry of Education and Science through a voucher system based on the number of pupils; private Roman Catholic schools receive additional funds from the government to cover operational costs. This system covers program but not capital costs of school operation. Founders generally bear responsibility for covering capital outlays; however, the Ministry provides funding for capital costs of traditional religious private schools where an international agreement to do so exists.
In 2007 public schools provided religious education to 272,912 Roman Catholics, 3,804 Russian Orthodox, 762 Evangelical Lutherans, 343 Greek Catholics, 225 Jewish students, 115 Evangelical Reformed Lutherans, 15 Old Believers, and 6 Muslims. A total of 222,233 students studied ethics.
An interministerial commission coordinates investigations of religious groups. It seeks to ensure that activities of religious groups are in line with the principles of a democratic society, human rights, and fundamental freedoms. The Minister of Justice appoints the chairperson of the commission, which also comprises representatives of the Ministries of Justice, Interior, Education, Health, Foreign Affairs, the General Prosecutor's Office, and the State Security Department. The Government established the commission following some parliamentarians' calls for increased control of "sects."
In 2006 the commission concluded that so-called magical services (for example, as offered by psychics and astrologers) were properly regulated by law, and no new regulations were necessary.
In 2006 the commission decided to examine the issue of cemetery vandalism, which occurs regularly--usually between 7 and 10 cases per year. It is unclear if these cases are motivated by religious hatred. By the end of the reporting period, the commission had not met formally to discuss the issue.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
While registered "nontraditional" religious communities can act as legal entities, they do not receive regular subsidies, tax exemptions, social benefits, or exemptions from military service enjoyed by traditional communities. In April 2006 the Government allocated $1,310,000 (3,279,000 litas) to traditional religious communities for capital costs associated with houses of worship, schools, and other facilities. No other religious communities received this type of support, but funds from municipal or other government sources may be available for their use. By the end of the reporting period, the Government had allocated $3,000 (7,579 litas) of funding to communities for 2007, with additional funding likely to come later.
The state additionally funds social security and health care contributions for spiritual leaders of traditional and state-recognized religious communities. Other religious communities must pay for these benefits on behalf of their spiritual leaders.
For the fifth consecutive year, Parliament deferred granting "state-recognized religion" status to the United Methodist Church of Lithuania.
At the end of the reporting period, the applications of the Seventh-day Adventists and the Pentecostals to become state-recognized religions remained pending. In 2006 the Ministry of Justice recommended to Parliament that the application of the Seventh-day Adventists to become a state-recognized religion be approved. The Parliament's Human Rights Committee supported the Ministry's recommendation and suggested including this question on Parliament's agenda. The Pentecostals (Evangelical Belief Christian Union) applied in 2004; their request awaited parliamentary consideration.
During the period covered by this report, the OEO Ombudsperson received seven complaints related to religious discrimination; only one was found to have merit. In July 2006 the OEO concluded that non-Catholic or nonreligious students were subjected to indirect discrimination after a student's father alleged that a question on the 2006 national high school graduation English language exam favored Roman Catholics. The question asked students to describe All Saints' Day and Christmas Eve and what these days meant to them. The OEO recommended that the National Examination Center (NEC) avoid topics related to the ethnic or religious identity of students. The NEC admitted that the questions about the Catholic holidays could have been misinterpreted by some students. However, the NEC stated that every student--regardless of religion--taking the exam should be at least partially familiar with the state's main holidays, traditions, and culture, and be able to express their relation to them. The NEC added that grading of the examination was based on the ability to express thoughts in a foreign language, not on knowledge of facts.
The Parliament Ombudsperson received one complaint that the administrator of one municipality exceeded her authority and violated the rights of a religious community in a nursing home. The Ombudsperson determined that the complaint was groundless.
At the end of the reporting period, the Government continued to negotiate with local and international Jewish groups about property restitution and no amendment had been introduced. In early 2002 the Government established a commission on communal property restitution. The commission's task was to identify communal property eligible for restitution and to propose amendments to the law to enable the secular Jewish community to benefit from the restitution process. The Government had promised to propose an amendment in the Parliament several times, including during the spring 2007 session.
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.
On September 6, 2006, 18 tombstones in a Vilnius Jewish cemetery were vandalized. On June 22, 2006, vandals tore down 22 monuments at the same cemetery. The President, Prime Minister, and Vilnius mayor criticized the desecrations and urged local law enforcement to find and punish the perpetrators. In both cases the Vilnius municipality restored the monuments with city funds. A pretrial investigation was launched, but no suspects were identified by the end of the reporting period.
In April 2006 the Fortas bar in Kaunas drew condemnation from politicians and television commentators when it marked Hitler's birthday by decorating the bar with Nazi paraphernalia, and its staff dressed as Hitler and SS officials. The bar's director called the event a "masquerade, a carnival, and a funny show." In September 2006 a patron at the same bar dressed as Hitler greeted other customers at the door. Jewish leaders asked the Government to state clearly that Nazi symbols and figures should have no place in the country. Several politicians, including Members of Parliament (MPs) and a deputy mayor of Kaunas, made public statements condemning the incident and the bar for its role in it. The owner of the bar sent a letter of apology to the local Jewish community, stating that the management and staff did not tolerate anti-Semitism.
An August 2005 "bulletin" stamped with the Lithuanian Liberty Union (LLU) party's seal urged persons not to trust a local bank because "Jewish Latvians" allegedly established it. The bank sued the LLU, alleging instigation of hatred toward Jews, and the State Security Department (SSD) conducted an investigation. In 2006 the SSD determined that there was insufficient evidence to support charges of ethnic hatred against Jews.
In May 2005 four to six motorcyclists wearing Nazi-style uniforms rode past the Jewish community headquarters in Vilnius, yelling Nazi epithets. The mayor asked the police to investigate. The Vilnius prosecutor's office initiated an investigation but had not charged anyone with a crime by the end of the reporting period.
In April 2005 a Siauliai City Council member founded a nationalist party with anti-Semitic policies, including stopping the Jewish communal property restitution process. In June 2005 several politicians and government officials denounced the politician's statements, and the SSD recommended bringing charges. In November 2005 a Siauliai city court found the council member guilty of incitement of ethnic and racial hatred, and fined him $1,937 (5,000 litas). Several of his supporters received lesser fines.
Beginning in 2005 international Jewish groups expressed concern about the construction of a commercial/residential complex on or near the grounds of a historically significant Jewish cemetery in Vilnius. The Russian Czar closed the cemetery in 1831 and constructed fortifications on part of the land. The Soviets subsequently destroyed visible vestiges of the cemetery, disturbing graves and constructing a sports complex on the site. On December 20, 2006, the Prime Minister established a working group, headed by the Vice Minister of Culture, to establish the boundaries of the cemetery. Despite the ongoing investigation by the working group, on February 15, 2007, the city government issued construction permits for a commercial/residential complex on or near the site, based in part on the recommendation of the Cultural Heritage Department of the Ministry of Culture.
Following a temporary halt to construction ordered by the Prime Minister in reaction to international pressure, construction resumed. In March 2007 at the request of the Government, the Lithuanian History Institute conducted a study of historical documents and concluded that the construction was within the historical boundaries of the cemetery. In May 2007 a group of 10 Lithuanian and international experts who were invited by the Government to examine the issue unanimously called for a halt to construction and a thorough study of the site. By the end of the reporting period, the Government had not halted the construction or conducted further study.
In February 2004 the popular national daily Respublika carried a series of editorials with anti-Semitic overtones under the title "Who Rules the World?" Government officials at the highest levels, local nongovernmental organizations, and other religious groups condemned the series, but the Jewish community and others criticized the Government for responding too slowly. The Prosecutor General's Office and the SSD launched investigations into incitement of ethnic and racial hatred by Respublika's editor-in-chief. In April 2004 Parliament formed a working group to strengthen legislation prohibiting incitement of discord, anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia. In January 2005 the Journalist Ethics Inspectorate fined Respublika $2,350 (6,000 litas) for ethical lapses. In May 2005 a Vilnius administrative court fined the editor-in-chief of the Russian-language version of Respublika $390 (1,000 litas) for dissemination of a publication that instigates national, racial, or religious discord. Prosecutors also pursued the editor and owner of Respublika, but in September 2005 the Supreme Administrative Court terminated the case against the editor and cancelled the fine of $1,180 (3,000 litas). The court annulled the ruling based on a "double-jeopardy" principle, since prosecutors were simultaneously pursuing both administrative and criminal punishment for violation of the same law. In November 2006 the Prosecutor General's Office petitioned the Supreme Administrative Court to reconsider; the court refused.
Anti-Semitic comments were written on unscreened Internet blogs and in unscreened Internet news portals' comments sections.
During the reporting period, the commission on the Holocaust and Soviet crimes published three books, organized seminars for 70 teachers, organized a Holocaust remembrance day on September 23, and celebrated International Tolerance Day at the Parliament on November 15, 2006. An estimated 10 percent of the pre-World War II population was Jewish. More than 200,000 Jews (95 percent of the immediate prewar Jewish population) died in the Holocaust. The country was still working to better understand its past and to make just recompense for its Holocaust involvement. In 1998 President Valdas Adamkus established the commission to investigate crimes of the Holocaust and Soviet occupation. The commission has held annual conferences and several seminars, published several reports, and cosponsored a Holocaust education program
Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom
During the period covered by the report, the State Register of Legal Entities registered seven traditional religious communities. The state did not deny registration to any religious group which applied.
The Government continued to engage in efforts to foster religious tolerance and understanding. In December 2006 the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee joined a statement of the European Union that condemned the Holocaust denial associated with a conference in Tehran.
In September 2006 the President awarded the Life Saving Cross to 59 persons who had worked to save Jews during the Holocaust. The President commended their selflessness and recognized the substantial number of people who perished during the Holocaust. Forty-one of the awardees received the award posthumously.
In early 2002 the Government established a commission on communal property restitution. The commission's task was to identify communal property eligible for restitution and to propose amendments to the law, enabling the secular Jewish community to benefit from the restitution process. At the end of the reporting period, the Government continued to negotiate with Lithuanian and international Jewish groups about property restitution; no amendment was introduced in the spring 2007 Parliamentary session.
Section III. Societal Abuses and Discrimination
Members of religious minorities occasionally were targets of acts of intolerance, such as insults.
In December 2006 a complaint was filed with the Equal Opportunity Ombudsperson that alleged the television channel MTV Lithuania's program Popetown "defamed and debased" the Catholic religion. Also in December the Lithuanian Bishops' Council tried to stop the broadcast of the program through a legal suit but failed. The Journalist Ethics Inspectorate and the Lithuanian Journalists and Publishers Ethics Commission issued statements condemning the broadcast of the program. In March 2007 the Lithuanian Radio and Television Commission fined the director of MTV Lithuania $1,180 (3,000 litas) for broadcasting Popetown. The official condemnations, however, did not fault MTV Lithuania for religious hatred but for broadcasting the program too early in the evening when children could watch.
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. The U.S. Embassy maintained a close and regular dialogue on religious issues with senior officials in the Government, MPs, and presidential advisors, as well as with religious leaders and concerned nongovernmental groups. Religious groups used the Embassy as a vehicle to voice their complaints, and the Embassy encouraged religious leaders to share their views and concerns on the status of religious freedom.
In March 2007 the Ambassador delivered a speech at an antidiscrimination conference cosponsored by the OEO Ombudsman and the Ministry of Social Security and Labor. The audience included MPs, government officials, civil society leaders, members of the diplomatic community, and media representatives. Joining a panel that included a government minister, an MP, and the Ombudsperson of Equal Opportunities, the Ambassador spoke out in defense of tolerance and strong antidiscrimination legislation as vital protectors of the country's democratic society.
The Embassy actively discussed the restitution of Jewish communal property with government officials and community leaders. The Embassy also maintained regular contact with U.S.-based missionary groups. The Embassy worked with local and international Jewish groups to encourage the Government to research the historical boundaries of the Jewish cemetery in the Snipiskes area of Vilnius and to protect it as a cultural heritage site. The Ambassador publicly criticized anti-Semitic statements in the media and encouraged a similar response from the highest officials of the Government. The Embassy spoke with government officials and the local Jewish community about the 2006 incidents of vandalism of a Jewish cemetery. The Embassy supported the efforts of the Jewish Museum in Vilnius to teach local youth about the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and tolerance in schools across the country, with a particular emphasis on rural communities.
In a leading daily newspaper, the Embassy addressed the importance of ensuring a diversity of cultural treasures and guarding against discrimination in the preservation of cultural heritage--especially where a national, religious, or ethnic group is unable to ensure adequate preservation on its own.