As for the Old Believers, the schismatics of the Russian Orthodox Church who moved from Russia to the Latvian territory from the mid-17th until the 18th century, they pledged loyalty to the newly established State in 1918, favouring democracy rather than the Bolshevik regime. After 1940, when Latvia was occupied by the USSR, the Soviet regime nationalized and confiscated all Old Believer Church’s properties. As religious education was prohibited, the Old Believers were unable to train future clergy members, whereas they were also affected by more direct Soviet repression, i.e. the deportation and execution of “enemies of the people”. The situation did not significantly improve after the Second World War, when the number of Old Believer Congregations continued to decline. When Latvia once again became an independent State in 1991, the Old Believer Church regained ownership of its buildings, lands and other possessions, and revivified its educational, cultural and economic activities.
Up until the 1830’s-1840’s, Russians were the main Orthodox believers in Latvia. Even if the Orthodox Church lost its privileges after the 1905 “Edict of Toleration”, at the beginning of the twentieth century the number of Orthodox believers increased significantly as a result of labour migration. Subsequently, the Latvian Orthodox Church came under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople (1936). During the years of the Soviet regime, when all confessions suffered from persecution, Orthodox congregations were closed down, clergymen imprisoned and deported, and Church property confiscated. The Latvian Orthodox Church also moved back to the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Moscow. Upon national independence, the latter Patriarch maintained canonical unity with the Latvian Orthodox Church. Today the Orthodox Church is the third largest religious organization in Latvia in terms of membership numbers.
As questions about religious belonging are no longer included in Latvian censuses, information about membership numbers of religious organizations can only be distilled from data published by the Ministry of Justice, i.e. by collating reports submitted by religious organizations in Latvia in 2014: the number of Lutherans is 717,407, to which can be added 407,018 Catholics, 370,000 Orthodox Christians, 6,533 Baptists, 3,989 7th-day Adventists, 3,237 Pentecostals, 2,338 Old Believers, 509 Methodists, 367 Jews, 320 Muslims, and 158 Buddhists. This data is provisional, as each religious organization conducts the count of their group members differently; the Latvian Old Believer Church for example counts only members who have voting rights at the congregation’s general meetings – a much larger number of people (39,514) who attend services and belong to the organization could be included. Muslims too have indicated relatively small membership numbers in their 2014 report (320 persons). Their number is continually increasing: three Muslim communities were registered in Latvia in 1995, six in 2000, fourteen in 2005, and no less than seventeen in 2014.
All inhabitants of Latvia have the right to join a religious organization, but under the age of 18 they can only do so if they can show written proof of their parents or guardians’ approval. New religious organizations, which don’t belong to registered religious associations (Churches), must reregister every year during the first ten years. Due to geopolitical and historical circumstances, religious organizations have experienced significant shifts, which have influenced their relationship with the Latvian State. Latvia has adopted the principle of State-Church separation, and State institutions don’t have the right to interfere in religious organizations’ activities. Religious organizations can be established by a minimum of twenty Latvian citizens or persons registered in the Population Register, provided that they are at least 18 years old. Prior to registration, the Ministry of Justice, which monitors Church-State affairs, has to evaluate the aims of the activities shown in religious organizations’ statutes and regulations, as well as the conformity of their mission to normative acts. It also decides whether their activities and teachings are potentially harmful to people’s rights, to the State’s democratic structure, to public safety, to welfare and to morality.
In Latvia, anyone has the right to receive religious instruction at religious organizations’ teaching institutions. Since 2004, Christian teachings or Ethics has been a compulsory subject in State primary schools, funded by the State budget; pupils’ parents select one of both options. Christian teachings classes are organized on the condition that at least ten pupils opt for them; the teachers are representatives of their respective denomination. The Christian teachings programme has been approved by the Ministry of Education and Science, and it includes Evangelical Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Old Believers and Baptist courses. Teachers are selected by the respective denominations’ leadership structures and certified by the Ministry of Education and Science. Religious instruction for particular minorities can also be taught at ethnic minority schools. In a survey conducted in 2013, 56.4 % of all respondents indicated that religion is a personal or family issue and that it shouldn’t be taught at schools; 32.7 % noted that the schools’ role in teaching Christian education can only be of benefit to children.
Religious organizations have the right to be involved in economic activities, the profits of which can be used for the aims outlined in the respective organization’s statutes. In case the yearly benefits are more than 500 times the minimum monthly wage, the organization has to establish an entrepreneurial structure that has to be registered in accordance with Latvian legislation. The latter legislation also prescribes the tax regime to which religious organizations are subjected.
As current issues in the field of religion are concerned, in 2010 efforts were made to introduce compulsory Bible studies in primary schools. However, the Latvian Parliament (Saeima) rejected the proposed amendments to the Education Law – even the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church was against the proposal. Discussions on the recognition of Orthodox Christmas Day as a holiday have also been ongoing since national independence. As had been the case in previous years, on Christmas Eve 2014 the opposition proposed the recognition of January 7 as an official holiday, but the Saeima did not vote in favour of the amendments. In its turn the Employers’ Confederation of Latvia stipulates that considering Orthodox Christmas Day a holiday should be a matter of free choice, which is not determined by the State. Generally, as there exist a large variety of religious denominations in Latvia, it is practically impossible to include all celebratory days in the “Law on Public Holidays, Remembrance Days and Days of Significance”, not in the least due to the high costs. However, local councils have the right to allocate particular holidays to their employees.
Finally, the laws of the Republic of Latvia guarantee the right to freely determine one’s attitude towards religion, to convert to a religion individually or collectively, to change one’s religious or other conviction, to undertake religious activities, and to freely express one’s religious convictions. One of the consequences of this situation is the recent emergence of new religious movements. As only some are registered as religious organizations (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, neopagan Dievturi, the Hare Krishna ISKCON Movement, Sukyo Mahikari, Church of the Last Testament, Baha’i, Christian Science), it is impossible to determine their actual number, but most of them seem to operate as cultural, educative or healing centres. Based on mapping undertaken by Latvian researchers, 50 to 70 new religious movements are thought to be active in Latvia today, a situation that is in line with a general tendency, which can be observed elsewhere in the EU.
Anita Stasulane (Daugavpils University, Latvia).