International Religious Freedom Report 2008

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion.

The Government generally respected religious freedom in practice. There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the period covered by this report; however, bureaucratic problems persisted for some minority religious groups.

There were a fewreports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation,belief, or practice; lingering suspicions remained toward newer, "nontraditional" religious groups.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom 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 and their percentage of the population include: Roman Catholicism (22 percent), Lutheranism (20 percent), and Orthodox Christianity (15 percent). 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 2008, according to official sources, 10,168 persons identified themselves as ethnically Jewish.

As of April 2008, the Board of Religious Affairs had registered approximately 1,200 congregations. These included Lutheran congregations (301), Roman Catholic (250), Orthodox Christian (119), Baptist (93), Old Believer Orthodox (69), Seventh-day Adventist (51), Muslim (17), 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, many adherents do not regularly practice their faith. In 2007 religious groups provided the following estimates of membership in congregations to the Justice Ministry: Roman Catholics (500,000), Lutherans (435,000), Orthodox Christians (350,000), Baptists (7,089), Seventh-day Adventists (3,900), Old Believer Orthodox (2,287), Mormons (858), Methodists (649), Muslims (334), Jews (247), Jehovah's Witnesses (176), Hare Krishnas (122), and Buddhists (100). 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

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion. The law at all levels protects this right in full against abuse, either by governmental or private actors. 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, in which case it is listed on the back side of the bio-page.

The Government observes Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter Monday as national holidays. For several years, the Orthodox Church has been seeking official recognition for Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter Monday as observed according to the Orthodox Church's calendar, but the Government had not adopted this proposal by the end of the reporting period.

The Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox churches have their own seminaries. 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, and specialists in 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. In 2007 the NRCC did not hold any meetings and did not publish any information or warnings concerning "cults."

The EC 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 EC met during the reporting period to discuss taxes on religious organizations, granting the status of public benefit organization to such organizations, and rules regulating the accreditation of religious organizations.

Under current law, traditional religious groups enjoy certain rights and privileges that nontraditional ones do not. The Government has been seeking to define in law the relations between the state and the traditional religious groups. Parliament adopted five laws during the reporting period that regulate relations between the state and specific religious groups: Baptist, Old Believer Orthodox, Jewish, Methodist, and Adventist. The laws came into effect on May 1, 2008. Draft laws on the relations between the state and Lutheran and Russian Orthodox churches were still under consideration at the end of the reporting period. It was not clear how the overall relationship between church and state would be defined and/or changed after the 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 for financial transactions, as well as tax benefits for donors. Registration also eases the rules for public gatherings.

According to the 1995 law, any twenty citizens or other persons over the age of 18 who have been recorded in the population register may apply to register a religious group. 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 religious association must reregister each year for ten years. Ten or more congregations of the same denomination and with permanent registration status may form a religious association. Only groups with religious association status may establish theological schools or monasteries. The decision to register a group 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. In 2006 the Latvian National Human Rights Office proposed to abolish the religious association membership requirement and reduce the new congregation registration requirement to three years. By the end of the reporting period, Parliament had not acted on this recommendation.

In October 2007, the Cabinet of Ministers rejected a proposal of the Ombudsman's Office (former National Human Rights Office) to annul the legal provision that forbids a person to wear a head covering in his/her passport photo.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government generally respected religious freedom in practice. There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the period covered by this report.

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 received requests to register ten autonomous Russian Orthodox congregations. The Government declined the requests mainly due to this provision. The congregations appealed the rejection to an administrative court, but no action was taken on the appeal 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 to 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 and other laws stipulate that only representatives of "traditional" Christian churches (i.e., Roman Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, Orthodox Christian, Old Believer, Baptist, Methodist, and Adventist) and Jewish groups 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 may provide religious education only in private schools.

A private Jewish school in Riga, Ohel Menachem Chabad Day School, has been petitioning the Latvian Ministry of Education for several years not to schedule compulsory national exams on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which often falls during the exam period. Despite receiving early notice of the date of the holiday, the Ministry scheduled the 2008 ninth grade mathematics exam for June 9, the first day of Shavuot. The make-up exam was set for July 14, which the school viewed as unfair, since it forced students, teachers, and administration to remain in place into the summer vacation simply because they did not want to violate the sanctity of a religious holiday. The school's repeated attempts to have the date amended failed, and even intervention by the human rights committee of Parliament and Prime Minister Godmanis did not resolve the scheduling problem, as the Education Ministry remained firm in its original choice of dates.

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.

During the reporting period, the Government and Jewish community continued to consider a legislative solution to outstanding communal property claims. However, no progress was made on this issue or on compensation for heirless private property last owned by members of the Jewish community that could not be regained earlier under the denationalization laws, since there were no identifiable heirs to the property. A 2006 draft law to provide compensation for an estimated 200 communal and heirless private properties was defeated on first reading that year, and the Government had not resubmitted it 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.

Section III. Societal Abuses and Discrimination

There were a few reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice during the reporting period, including anti-Semitic incidents.

Ecumenism 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 remained suspicious of such groups.

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 then President Vaira Vike-Freiberga. Participants included citizens and delegates from the United States, and Western, Central, and Eastern Europe.

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 country and on ethnic Latvians, sometimes at the expense of comment on the Holocaust or some citizens' role in it.

On February 27, 2008, an act of vandalism occurred at the Rumbula Forest Memorial. Several of the monuments for victims of the Holocaust were marked with swastikas. That same day the Riga city government arranged to remove the markings. There was no information on who committed the act.

A memorial to Janis Lipke, who saved 55 Jews from the Riga ghetto during the Nazi occupation, was unveiled on July 4, 2007. In June 2007 part of a separate memorial under construction, also dedicated to Janis Lipke, 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. In March 2008 Rolands Gobins and Vyacheslav Fadeyev were convicted of vandalism and sentenced to three years in prison in the case.

In 2007 there were 16 officially registered hate crimes. Law enforcement institutions do not collect or publish data specifically on hate crimes (there is no definition of hate crimes in the country's legislation), but they provide information on the number of cases under a specific article upon request. For the year 2007, of the 16 cases, only 1 was connected with Jews, a hate speech case which involved publishing hostile comments in February 2007 about Jews and Roma on the Internet. On a public discussion website, a well-known neo-Nazi, Andris Jordans, stated that Jews and Roma were 'non-humans' and that it would be preferable to exterminate them. The statement received wide media attention, raised the level of public debate in the country on the issue, and resulted in a criminal investigation. However, on August 22, 2007, the Prosecutor's Office dismissed the charges, claiming that the statements were free speech protected by the Constitution and by the European Convention for Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The Special Assignments Minister for Social Integration and members of the Jewish Association sent a letter to the Prosecutor General asking that the decision of the prosecutor of the Riga Regional Court be reevaluated. The criminal proceeding was relaunched, and on March 6, 2008, the court sentenced Jordans to 18 months' imprisonment for incitement of racial hatred.

During the reporting period, a Riga court reviewed a hate speech case initiated in 2005. After a three-year investigation, the court found the publisher of an anti‑Semitic and anti‑Russian newspaper not guilty of incitement of interethnic hatred. The paper had published articles referring to Jews as "kikes" and disparaging Russians living in the country. On May 28, 2007, the court ruled that in discussion of the interpretation of historical facts, interethnic relations, attitudes towards persons with distinctive skin color, religion, and culture, as well as other sensitive issues, it is permissible and even necessary to have a variety of opinions, although they may be unpleasant and unacceptable to a part of the society. The court held that the complex linguistic, legal, and psychological expert opinions did not allow it to conclude without any doubt that the language used could be classified as incitement to racial and national hatred.

Of a total of 14 hate crime cases initiated in 2006, none concerned 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.

Prominent lawyer Andris Grutups published a book in September 2007 called Scaffold that discussed events during and after World War II. The book drew criticism from academics and the Jewish community as anti-Semitic. Grutups also had written a play, shown privately in Riga in January 2007, about the Beilis trial (which involved the "blood libel" allegation) in early 20th-century Russia; the local Jewish community called the work anti-Semitic and its showing a cause for concern.

Anti-Semitic literature was sold openly at a bookstore in Riga, despite the law banning incitement of ethnic hatred.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom 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 religious freedom by engaging in regular exchanges with the President, the Prime Minister, and appropriate government bodies, including the Board of Religious Affairs, human rights nongovernmental organizations, and representatives of various religious confessions, including missionaries.