Latvia Table of Contents

In 1935, before Latvia's occupation, official statistics indicated a fairly broad spectrum of religious traditions. Evangelical Lutheranism was the single most widespread creed, claiming the attachment of 55.2 percent of the population and 68.3 percent of ethnic Latvians. Roman Catholicism was the second most popular choice, preferred by 24.5 percent of the population and 26.4 percent of ethnic Latvians. Because it was especially entrenched in the economically less-developed southeastern province of Latgale (70 percent in this region) and was commonly seen as being regional rather than national, Roman Catholicism's impact on the secular world of politics and culture appeared muted in comparison with that of Lutheranism. The Orthodox Church of Latvia had a following of 9 percent of the population, with its greatest concentration among Russians and other Slavs but with 33 percent of its support also coming from ethnic Latvians. Old Believers (see Glossary), constituting 5.5 percent of the population, are a unique Russian fundamentalist sect whose forebears had fled persecution from the tsarist empire in the seventeenth century and had found refuge in then Swedish- and Polish-controlled Latvia. About 5 percent of Latvia's citizens were Jewish. The rest of the pre-World War II population was scattered among an array of Protestant denominations.

World War II and a half-century of Soviet occupation and persecution of believers fundamentally changed the religious spectrum. The Evangelical Lutheran Church, with an estimated 600,000 members in 1956, was affected most adversely. An internal document of March 18, 1987, spoke of an active membership that had shrunk to only 25,000. By 1994 religious congregations in Latvia numbered 819, of which 291 were Lutheran, 192 Roman Catholic, 100 Orthodox, fifty-six Old Believer, seventy Baptist, forty-nine Pentecostal, thirty-three Seventh-Day Adventist, five Jewish, three Methodist, and two Reformed.

Part of the explanation of the diminished status of Latvia's Lutheran Church is to be found in its relative weakness as an institution, unable to withstand the pressures of occupation as robustly as the Roman Catholic Church. For centuries Latvian attachment to Lutheranism was rather tepid, in part because this religion had been brought by the Baltic barons and German-speaking clergy. During Latvia's earlier independence period (1920-40), efforts were made to Latvianize this church. Original Latvian hymns were composed, Latvian clergy became predominant, and the New Testament was translated into modern Latvian. During the tribulations of World War II, Latvians intensified their religiosity, but at the same time the Lutheran Church suffered serious losses. Many of the most religious and talented individuals and clergy fled as refugees to the West or were deported to Siberia. A large number of church buildings were demolished by war action.

The Roman Catholic Church had a much closer historical bonding with its flock. During the period of national revival through the latter part of the nineteenth century in Latgale, the clergy were among the leaders of enlightenment and an important bastion against Russification. They nurtured and were themselves members of the Latgalian intelligentsia. During the years of communist occupation, the greater commitment demanded by the Roman Catholic Church helped maintain a higher degree of solidarity against atheist incursions. For the church, the practice of confession was a useful method for monitoring the mood of the population and for organizing initiatives to counter or prevent serious cleavages or even surreptitious activities by the communist leadership. Direct guidance from Rome offered some protection against the manipulation of clergy by state functionaries. Finally, the population of Latgale did not have the same opportunity to flee from Latvia because it was cut off earlier from access to the seacoast by the Red Army. Roman Catholic clergy, who were unmarried, were also more inclined to remain with their religious charges, whereas Lutheran clergy had to take into account the safety of their families.

Most Latvian Jews were annihilated by the Nazis during World War II. After the war, a certain number of Jews from other parts of the Soviet Union settled in Latvia. Many of them had already endured antireligious campaigns under Stalin, and there were many obstacles placed in the way of reviving Jewish religious activity. Most former Latvian synagogues were confiscated by the state for other uses, and nowhere in the entire Soviet Union did there exist any centers for rabbinical education. After Latvia's independence in 1991, there was a resurgence of interest in religious affairs. Five Jewish congregations served the growth in demand for services.

The statistics for 1991 point to an interesting pattern (see table 21, Appendix). At that time, far more people were baptized than married in church. Part of the explanation can be found in the requirement by some religions, including Lutheranism, that people must be first baptized and confirmed before having a religious wedding. Another possible explanation for this phenomenon is that the communist state was quite successful in sowing doubts about religion among the young and the middle-aged. Many, especially former members of the Komsomol and the communist party, feel uncomfortable in their personal relationship with the church but also have a desire to open more options for their offspring. Indeed, it is a common phenomenon to see nonreligious parents sending their children to Sunday school for the sake of "character building." In the process, however, some of the parents have become tied to a church and have joined the congregation.

During communist rule, every effort was made to curtail the influence of religion. All potential avenues of contact with the population were cut off. Schools, media, books, and workplaces were all off-limits to religious organizations. Even charity work was forbidden. Indeed, the family itself was not at liberty to guide children into active church work until the age of eighteen. Thus, no Sunday schools, religious choirs, or camps were open to young people. Religious publications, with a few exceptions, were limited to yearbooks and song sheets for Sunday services. Regular churchgoers were subject to various pressures, including harassment at work and comradely visits by local atheists. Anyone with career ambitions had to forgo visible links with religion. The state successfully preempted the most important church ceremonies of baptism, confirmation, weddings, and funerals by secular ceremonies. In 1986 the Lutheran Church registered 1,290 baptisms, 212 confirmations, 142 marriages, and 605 funerals--a fraction of the activity that was to occur in 1991. Evidently, a revolution in the status of the church occurred within that brief period.

Starting with 1987, the Lutheran Church experienced a revival pioneered by a group of young, rebellious, and very well-educated clergy who formed the organization Rebirth and Renewal (Atdzimsana un Atjaunosana). There were confrontations with communist authorities and with the ossified hierarchy of the Lutheran Church itself, which had become somnolent and very accommodating to the demands of secular powers. With the advent of political plurality, the Lutheran Church was able to expand its role and its activities. Church buildings were refurbished, demolished churches were renewed, Sunday schools were opened, religious education was provided in day schools, and the media reported sermons and religious discussions. For several years after the liberalization of church activities, religion became extremely fashionable. Part of this boom, as acknowledged by the Lutheran clergy, was a rebellion against authorities that coincided with the general political effervescence.

The Roman Catholic Church also went through a process of renewal, but its changes were not as marked because it had been able to maintain a strong presence in the population even under the most adverse conditions. Thus, in 1985 the Roman Catholics performed 5,167 baptisms, about five times as many as the Lutherans. In 1991 the Roman Catholics performed 10,661 baptisms, more than double the number in 1985. Among the Roman Catholics baptized in 1991, only 40 percent had been born in families in which the parents had married in church.

A major change in the geography of the Roman Catholic Church also presented problems. Whereas in 1935 more than 70 percent of Roman Catholics resided in the southeastern province of Latgale, by 1990 only 42 percent lived there. Thus, many Roman Catholics lived throughout Latvia, where often no churches of their creed existed. There has been much ecumenical goodwill, and the more numerous Lutheran churches are being used by Roman Catholics and by other religious groups. Administratively, the Roman Catholic Church comprises the Archdiocese of Riga and the Diocese of Liepaja.

Latvia's Roman Catholic Church received a great moral boost in February 1983 when Bishop Julijans Vaivods was made a cardinal. This was the first such appointment in the history of Latvia and the first within the Soviet Union. No doubt part of the willingness of the communist party to accommodate the Roman Catholic Church in this way was the fact that Vaivods was eighty-seven years old in 1983. Yet, he confounded the communists by living until May 1990, thus providing more than seven years of leadership.

Vaivods, who studied theology in St. Petersburg and was an eyewitness to the Bolshevik Revolution, was also an extremely able tactician. His efforts on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church in the Soviet Union are a classic case of stubborn, low-key, but effective opposition to party pressure. The Soviet regime had decided to allow Roman Catholic congregations outside Latvia and Lithuania to die by not allowing them new clergy. Almost daily, delegations of Roman Catholic faithful from various parts of the Soviet Union came to Vaivods during the 1960s pleading for help. He sent Latvian priests to Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Tallinn, and other cities, in spite of local shortages. When pressed by the delegations to allow their own people to enroll in Latvia's Roman Catholic seminary, Vaivods made it clear that the obstacle was not the church but rather state authorities who had given him instructions to claim that the seminary was too small. Under pressure, the authorities relented and allowed a trickle of seminarians from outside Latvia, but as punishment they took away almost half of the seminary's rooms. The church skimped and struggled but did not change its policy. By 1978 the expropriated space was returned, and three years later permission was granted for the construction of a new seminary. Thereafter, seminarian numbers increased rapidly from eighteen in 1980 to 107 in 1989. Most of the students were non-Latvians slated for service in other areas of the Soviet Union.

Latvian Lutherans also provided help to their brethren in other Soviet republics. Lutheran clergy were trained in Latvia for Lithuania. More important, Bishop Haralds Kalnins single-handedly took care of scattered German Lutherans outside the Baltic region. Besides ministering and preaching, he was empowered to ordain religious workers and to settle questions of theological education. In one six-day trip to Kazakhstan in 1976, the bishop held seven services in which 400 people received Holy Communion, twenty children were christened, thirty-five youths were confirmed, and ten couples were married. He was able to carry this load in spite of his advanced age.

The pre-World War II independent Orthodox Church of Latvia was subordinated to the Moscow Patriarchate after the war, and its new clergy were trained in seminaries in Russia. It remained a major religious organization in Latvia because of the heavy influx of Russians and other Orthodox Slavs after the war. Only in 1992 did the Orthodox Church of Latvia become administratively independent once again. Its cathedral in the center of Riga had been transformed by the communists into a planetarium with an adjoining coffee shop popularly dubbed "In God's Ear." The cathedral is now being restored to its original architecture and purpose.

With the advent of independence, several other changes were introduced as well. Potential Lutheran pastors could now receive their training through the Faculty of Theology, which is affiliated with the University of Latvia. The Roman Catholics acquired a modern new seminary, but they had problems recruiting able scholars and teachers as well as students. Most Roman Catholic seminarians from outside Latvia have returned to their respective republics, and new seminarians are being trained locally. The new freedoms have allowed many other religious groups to proselytize and recruit members. Under conditions of economic and political uncertainty, their efforts are bearing fruit. Such denominations as the Baptists, Pentecostals, and Seventh-Day Adventists have made significant inroads. Charismatic movements, animists, Hare Krishna, and the Salvation Army have all attempted to fill a void in Latvia's spiritual life. Undoubtedly, there is great interest among Latvians in spiritual matters, but it is difficult to know how much of it is genuine and how much reflects the ebb and flow of fashion and will be replaced by other trends.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress