New and Non-Traditional Religious Movements in Lithuania

Versija spausdinimui

by Donatas Glodenis

This paper aims to give a general overview of the situation of the new and non-traditional religious movements in Lithuania, without going in-depth or trying to evaluate either religious movements or societal reactions to the phenomena described.

The meaning of "non-traditional" in Lithuanian usage

Before going into detail I will explain what I mean by "non-traditional", since the concept of "new religious movements" has boundaries drawn around it more or less clearly – I will use it to describe movements that started to visibly operate or were established after World War II. The meaning of "non-traditional" in Lithuania to a large extent has been influenced by the Law on religious communities and associations[1], adopted by the Seimas (Parliament) of Lithuania in 1995. In this law nine religious associations in Lithuania were counted as "recognised" by the state and labelled "traditional", while other religious faiths were referred to as "other" religious communities and associations, adding "non-traditional" in brackets. It is quite evident, that the people who made the law did not intend to divide the religious communities along the lines of being traditional/non-traditional to Lithuania. The law spoke of recognised and "other" religious communities that can also become recognised by the state without becoming "traditional". This being possible after 25 years of their initial registration of the community in Lithuania. However, since in the law only the nine traditional religious communities were recognised by the state, the "traditional" even in the later legislation became synonymous with "recognised", and the "other" – with non-recognised, non-traditional, even "sectarian" or destructive.

Since only the nine traditional religious associations are "recognised" in Lithuania (those include: Roman Catholic, Eastern Rite Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Old Believers; Lutheran, Reformed, Jewish, Sunni Muslim and Karaite), all the other faiths, even such churches that are quite "mainline" in the West (Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist, Baptist) are often referred to as new religious movements or sometimes even "sects" in the media. They are often named alongside the more controversial Christian origin groups (such as Mormons, Jehovah witnesses) and the NRM (such as Unification movement, Osho meditation centres, etc.).

This paper treats new and non-traditional religious movements and churches in Lithuania together for one more reason – many of the non-traditional religions do display features like those of new religiosity groups, and they are still perceived as something new and strange in the cultural context of Lithuania, dominated by the Roman Catholic, and, to a smaller extent, other so called "traditional" religious faiths.

General tendencies of NRM growth

After Lithuania gained independence of the Russian Empire in 1918, quite a few non-traditional faiths already existed within the country. Baptists were found in Lithuania already in 1840's, Methodists appeared around the turn of the century, as did the Pentecostals. These religious communities were not widespread, some of them were related to ethnic minorities (like the Methodists, whose communities were composed mostly of ethnic Germans; this could also be said about the New Apostolic Church). Lithuania also has a history of esoteric beliefs and practices – one of the famous people of the first half of the century was Vydūnas, who held beliefs similar to those of Rerich society. Though the Catholic Church had a lot of control over the public life during the first years of independence, Vydūnas apparently lived and wrote about his views without much controversy. Of the more controversial movements, the organisation of Jehovah Witnesses (at that time known as "International Organization of Bible Students") was registered in Lithuania in 1934, apparently having existed in the country for a few years before the date. The end of 1920's also witnessed the rebirth of interest in pagan past of Lithuania – as a result a neo-pagan religious society "Romuva" was founded, which claimed to continue ancient pagan religious tradition.

Soviet occupation brought a lot of oppression on both large and small religious bodies. For some smaller ones the pressure from the state resulted in virtual extinction – that seems to have been the case with Jehovah Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists and Methodists. Baptists and Pentecostals were joined together by Stalin's decree in all of the Soviet Union, perhaps with a hope that those communities would loose their authenticity and vanish. Religious life of all the communities was quite strictly controlled by the Soviet authorities under the legislation "on religious cults"[2], with strict guidelines for the life of a community. The factor of nationality played a role in the formation of Soviet politics regarding religious communities as well; for example, one Russian speaking Pentecostal community in Vilnius got a permission to build a prayer house, while some other evangelical churches could not regain their own buildings, confiscated by the Soviet authorities.

Esoterism and psychic groups got quite a good footing in Lithuania in the absence of strong religious authority and the efforts of atheist propaganda. According to religion researcher Arūnas Peškaitis, atheist propaganda, promoting an idea of a universe entirely explainable by scientific laws, at times had to explain psychic phenomena in scientific terms, thus creating an aura of scientific credibility around the psychic phenomena. The idea that psychic experiences are but poorly researched scientifically explainable phenomena is still prevalent in Lithuania today. According to Arūnas Peškaitis, the atheist propaganda of Soviet times has thus created a fertile soil for esoteric and New Age groups.[3]

With the advent of the new Lithuanian independence of 1990 the door was open for the non-traditional religious communities to spread, and for the NRM to enter Lithuanian scene. The ideas that were under the soviet suspicion were becoming more and more acceptable. The beginning of the independence movement was also marked by increasing Western missionary activity, which also coincided with reassertion of religious ideals in the society. These processes led to sudden growth in church attendance and religious conscience of the people, while at the same time making possible the growth of new and non-traditional religions.

The dynamics of resulting growth of all non traditional religious communities, including the new religious movements, could be illustrated graphically. Figure 1 shows the dynamics of "church planting" efforts of the non-traditional communities. Altogether 17 known communities were founded in the years 1988 and before; after the year 1988 the number of communities founded increases gradually, reaching it's peak in the years 1992 and 1993, when 24 and 23 communities were founded respectively and then decreasing with years. It is also quite significant to mention, that the largest Christian origin communities are those, founded at the end of 80's – beginning of 90's, and they have grown only up until 1994. The year 1997 saw a sudden rise of the number of communities founded again, but that reflects more the renewed interest of United Methodist Church in Lithuanian missions. It is quite evident, that the growth dynamics slows down after 1994, and this could partly be explained by the increasing number of atrocity stories about the new and non-traditional religious movements and a resulting rise of fear of non-traditional religiosity in the society. Perhaps the decreasing appeal of the Western culture, brought by the missionaries of different Christian origin movements, could also be among the reasons.

Figure 1. [4]

statistikos lentelė

The general decrease of the appeal of non-traditional religiosity during the last six years may not have affected so much the appeal of the native origin groups of esoteric nature, and the groups that do not display the communal structure. New Age type teachings are being spread by people who usually shun the label of religion and have quite large client cult or audience cult type followings. With a significant percentage of Lithuanian Catholics holding such beliefs of eastern origin, popularised by the esoteric teachings, as reincarnation, it hardly need be a surprise. However, the groups of esoteric and spiritual nature have received the least scholarly attention in Lithuania, and no significant study has ever been undertaken to capture the dynamics of those groups, so it would be premature to talk about the extent of their activities.

If one is to speak of "religious movements" in Lithuania, there are about 60 different non-traditional movements. They embrace more than 300 religious communities and groups. The population percentage involved in religious communities (and this does not include all the smaller esoteric groups) is about 0.46 % of the population[5].

What follows, is quite a representative, sample of non-traditional religious life in Lithuania.

Christian and Christian origin groups

There are quite a number of Christian and Christian origin groups in Lithuania. Those are also the largest non-traditional religious movements. One of the largest and most publicised of such movements is the Word of Faith church movement. Though the movement has it's counterparts in other parts of the world, it has been started and evolved independently of the similar phenomena in Sweden (Word of Life church movement), US (prosperity theology), or Latvia (New Generation churches). Though at first the movement followed closely the theology of the Swedish Word of Life movement, currently it is harder to attribute to any specific category, while the movement refers to itself as a Christian charismatic non-denominational Church.

The first Word of Faith church was started in 1988 by a group of people, who didn't feel comfortable in a self-enclosed mentality Pentecostal community. The movement grew dramatically, increasing basically from zero in 1988 to 4 or 5 thousand members in 1992[6]. The next few years were followed by a tide of a negative publicity about the movement, blaming it for the suicides of a few members, financial exploitation of the members, etc. The negative publicity decreased the appeal of the movement, it also raised the public awareness of new religiosity in general. The basis for the charges against the movement were questioned a lot; however, the coming years saw gradual decrease in membership of the movement – the number of adherents in 1998 was about 2600, with about 56 communities, the largest of those being about 800 strong.

The movement of New Apostolic Church is perhaps the biggest non-traditional movement in Lithuania, which is in part due to the high degree of adaptation to Lithuanian culture[7]. The movement, having the first of it's communities founded in Lithuania by German missionaries in 1991, is still very dependent on the missionary resources, but has also spread throughout Lithuania with 45 communities and about 4000 people attending religious services. The number of people attending services is apparently not decreasing.

Jehovah Witnesses is another big Christian origin movement in Lithuania, far outnumbering the Mormon community (2500 and 3-400 in weekly attendance respectively). The Jehovah Witnesses are currently quite a controversial movement, with their position on blood transfusions often discussed. By far the most controversial Christian origin group is the Unification movement[8], having perhaps only 20 to 50 more or less active members. It is well known in Lithuania because of its public campaigns "Pure love" and street fundraising. Media's attention to the movements activities is very high, and the unwillingness of the movement's members to let the people know at once whom they have met on the street is quite evident. For example, CARP in Lithuania has claimed to have no relationship to the Unification movement, except for the moral ideals of Rev. Moon. When on June 28th, 2000 the Ministry of Justice warned CARP to discontinue its religious activities "that contradicted the bylaws of the association", the event was interpreted by the media as a ban on the religious activities of Moon's followers, with the usual anti-cult coverage of the Unification movement presented in full colour.

Baptists and Pentecostals are also quite strong Christian movements in Lithuania, with Adventists following close. The features of new religiosity could be found also in many Catholic groups, including Catholic charismatic renewal, lay Franciscan movement, Focolari movement, Opus Dei, etc.

Eastern and oriental origin groups

One of the first Eastern origin groups in Lithuania was the Society for Krishna Conscience. The first adherents appeared in Lithuania in early 1980's, though persecuted a lot by the Soviet regime. The movement and its ideas spread mainly among artists at first. Today the Society of Krishna Conscience counts 3-400 members and 12 communities, being the largest eastern origin group in Lithuania. The other movement to gain much favourable attention in the Soviet years already was the Sathya Say Baba movement, impressing the public by promotion of peace and unity of all religions. The movement is often perceived as inter-religious, and the people involved usually identify themselves as Catholic. There are a few Buddhist groups and Zen communities in the country – Kwan Um Zen, Tibetan Buddhist, Karma Kagyu communities, Communities confessing the Teachings of Buddha. Eastern type movements seem to be keeping their numbers – the number of the adherents in the Buddhist communities currently is higher than 200, with about 7 communities established.

Osho meditation centres, following the Rajneesh teachings is another movement, drawing a lot from Eastern sources. There are 3 centres, about 100 adherents of the movement. None of the centres have been registered in Lithuania as religious communities – in fact the Ministry of Justice has refused to register Osho meditation centre "Ojas" in Vilnius, motivating its decision on the grounds that "Ojas" does not conform to the model of religious community described in the Law on religious communities and associations, and has some questionable requirements for those who participate.

The Oriental origin Baha'i movement numbers about 100 adherents and 6 communities, none of which have applied for registration in Lithuania yet.

Neo-pagan groups

There are two types of neo-pagan groups in Lithuania. The first one is Romuva, a movement aiming at regenerating ancient pagan beliefs and religious practices of Lithuania. In Soviet times (the movement was started by Jonas Trinkūnas in 1967) this movement was presenting itself as a cultural society, fostering Lithuania folklore and history, but after the 1990 the movement re-emphasised its religious nature. The movement has three communities and maybe a hundred adherents; however, it has a very positive public image. The religious beliefs of Romuva are quite difficult to describe – the "holy" is found in "darna" (Lithuanian for "harmony"), which should be the highest aspiration of the people of all faiths. Romuva claims it does not negate other religions. This claim is perhaps best understood in light of very flexible doctrinal formulations with the emphasis of the experience of the "holy" in songs and folk festivals, inherited from ancient times. Though gods are often mentioned, sometimes one can get an impression that they are literally understood as mental projections of some immanent spirit in nature and human beings.

The other self-professedly pagan group, Cociety of Lithuanian pagan faiths "the Old Sorcerer" (Lietuvių pagonių tikėjimų draugija "Senasis Žynys"), combines concepts from science and different religions to create a teaching that many of the religion scholars of Lithuania consider a gibberish. The group has tried to register as a religious community at the Ministry of Justice, but so far with little success.

Spiritualist /psychic, esoteric groups

The Church of Scientology is perhaps the best-known of the Spiritualist/psychic groups in Lithuania. There is no branch of the Church of Scientology itself, but there is a Dianetics Centre registered as a social organization in the capital Vilnius. The Centre started its activities in 1995, and since then has become one of the most controversial religious organisations in Lithuania, drawing criticism both from the society, religious studies specialists and the government. The newly set up government commission, aiming at the co-ordination of the activities of government institutions in implementing the recommendation of the Council of Europe "Illegal Activities of Sects"[9] in its August 22, 2000 meeting decided to prepare publicly available materials on the Church of Scientology along the lines of the Council of Europe recommendations. This would be a move without a precedent in Lithuania's recent history.

Other well known but more mainline group in Lithuania is the Parapsychology Academy in Vilnius, with a branch in Kaunas, consulting people with different problems and publishing a lot of materials of esoteric nature, including a monthly magazine. There are quite a number of smaller societies like that. Those also shun being described as religious, rather trying to describe their beliefs in scientific language. The society of Rerich, working closely with a Lithuanian origin society of Vydūnas should also be mentioned, though those would also avoid being labelled religious and which has not been controversial.

Closing observations

There has been very little research into new religions in Lithuania yet. Most of the existing research was performed by a group of people closely related to each other, and may not represent a variety of perspectives. It would be especially useful to observe some of the Lithuanian origin groups, including both neo-pagan movement and NRM like Panevėžys Spiritual Perfection Centre (Panevėžio dvasinio tobulėjimo centras). Russian origin groups, like Visarion movement and the White Brotherhood, have also had their followers in Lithuania, but information on those groups is very scarce. More research is needed to get a good grasp of most of the movements currently active in Lithuania.

 

Selected statistics:
Religious communities in Lithuania, 1999[10]

Confession
Membership
Weekly attendance
Communities
Roman Catholics 3,210,000 (70 percent of the population) 550,000 (14-16 percent of the population) 688
Russian Orthodox 180,000 5,000 31
Old Believers 50,000 1,500-2,000 27
Lutherans 30,000 3,000 48
Reformed 11,000 400-500 8
New Apostolic Church 5,600 4,000 45
Muslims 5,000 500 5
Jews <5,000 200-300 6
Word of Faith 2,800 3,500 56
Jehovah's Witnesses 2,200 2,500 18
Pentecostals (all) 1,800 2,000 38
Baptists (all) 1,100 1,300 32
Adventists 1,000 600 21
Eastern Rite Catholics 900 ? 5
Mormons 450 300-400 3
Hare Krishna 300 (?) 200-300 12
Methodists 220 250-300 6
Buddhists 200 (?) 200 (?) 7
Nondenominational 140 250 3

Cited:

[1] Lietuvos Respublikos religinių bendruomeniųir bendrijų įstatymas. Valstybės žinios, 1995, Nr. 89-1985.

[2] Religinių susivienijimų nuostatai. Lietuvos TSR Aukščiausiosios Tarybos ir Vyriausybės žinios, 1976 m., Nr. 32-304.

[3] Arūnas Peškaitis. "Sociopsichologinė terpė New Age invazijai į Lietuvą. Prizmė, 1996, Nr. 3, p. 42-44.

[4] This figure is based on the data presented in: Donatas Glodenis & Holger Lahayne. Religijos Lietuvoje. Šiauliai: Nova Vita, 1999.

[5] According to the data, presented in Religijos Lietuvoje, 1999.

[6] Arūnas Peškaitis in a book by Arūnas Peškaitis and Donatas Glodenis. "Todays Religiosity: New Movements and Forms of Expression at the Turn of the Centuries." Due to be published by Vaga Publishers, Vilnius, in September, 2000.

[7] Donatas Glodenis. "Naujosios Apaštalų Bažnyčios augimo dinamikos tyrimas - fokusuotų interviu analizė." (Aufbruch project materials kept at Vilnius University), 1997.

[8] For the sake of text brevity the Unification movement is included among Christian origin groups in this paper. Elsewhere I include in the category of Messianic groups.

[9] "Recomendation 1412 (1999): Illegal Activities of Sects". Gazette of the Council of Europe, 1999, No. 6.

[10] Statistics is based on: Donatas Glodenis and Holger Lahayne, eds. Religijos Lietuvoje.(Šiauliai: Nova Vita, 1999), and on data from personal sources.

Donatas Glodenis
A paper presented at the 14th international CESNUR conference "New Religiosity in the 21st century", August 29-31, 2000, Riga.

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