New Religious Movements in Latvia in the Mirror of the Press

Nikandrs Gills, University of Latvia
(A paper presented at CESNUR 99 conference, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania Preliminary version.© Nikandrs Gills, 1999 Do not reproduce without the consent of the author)

(Other texts on new religious movements in Latvia; CESNUR 2,000 conference in Riga, Latvia) Here is the text of the court decision about the case of R. Nemiro:in Latvia


Mass media have played a crucial role in overthrowing the Communist regime in Latvia in late 1980s. The press was still under control of the Communist party, when the inner opposition came forth with a series of publications voicing opinions that differed from those of the official ideology. It was a time when authors, poets and publicists affirmed the imperishable value of freedom of expression.

The Soviet Constitution, as we know, had declared the freedom of conscience, but in reality this freedom had to remain within the narrow limits of a church, a chapel, a monastery, or a private flat. Besides, only those confessions that were recognised by the Commissioner for the Religious Affairs of the Council of Ministers of the USSR could exercise even this limited freedom. The only religious publications permitted by the authorities were church almanacs and leaflets with the texts of songs, meant for special days in the church calendar. The congregations were not permitted to publish their own periodicals; pastors and priests could not express their views in daily newspapers, radio, or TV.

The religious censorship, however, was circumvented by spreading hand-written documents. The churches abroad, particularly Latvian churches in exile, were of considerable assistance to Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Baptists, the Seventh-day Adventists and other denominations in Latvia providing them with religious publications; the great bulk of them was sent to Latvia illegally.

When perestroika reached Latvia, one part of representatives of the mainstream churches took an active part in the fight for political rights, for real freedom of conscience, worship and speech and also for rights to carry out missionary work. The original purpose of the fight was to reform the existing political and social system, yet eventually another aim was set, namely, restoration of national independence of Latvia and creation of a democratic social system.

During that period, an unprecedented number of people of Latvia joined one or another of the mainstream churches, and enthusiastically participated in their renewal. This original enthusiasm, it seems, was at the same time a form of political manifestation. The fresh air of freedom was felt also by religious minorities, i.e., Jews, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, ISKCON, Buddhists, etc.

A real renewal of religious organisations could only take place after the USSR collapsed and Latvia regained its national independence and Constitution, and after the basic legislation on religion was adopted. Now the work at implementation of democratic rights and legislative norms began. The thirst for free religious expression had been quenched, and many churchgoers started asking themselves whether they really believed in the doctrine of their particular church; another question was why there were plenty of new, previously unknown religions, and what that could mean. Discussions on religious freedom, on the relationship between the state and the church, and among different religious organisations were conveyed by the daily press.

Let me mention some facts about the press in Latvia. Still before the official restoration of Latvian statehood in 1991, several independent publications had been created. There was a sharp increase in their number after 1991.

The structure of the press is largely determined by the language of the publication, since there are several ethnic groups living in Latvia. Among the inhabitants of Latvia in 1997, 55.5 per cent were Latvian, 32 per cent Russian, 3.9 per cent Bielorussian, 2.8 per cent Ukrainian, 2.9 per cent Polish, 1.3 per cent Lithuanian, 0.4 per cent Jew, 1.4 per cent other [1]. (It should be noted, that most non-Latvians use Russian as their basic language of communication.)

In the same 1997, 161 different newspapers were published in Latvian [2],

of them:

Childrens' newspapers 4

Christian 6

municipal (regional) 35

daily 14

evening 2

63 newspapers were published in Russian [3]; of them:

Childrens -

Christian 1

municipal (regional) 54

daily 7

evening 1

69 Latvian newspapers (43.8 per cent) were published in Riga [4], the capital of Latvia. From among Russian language newspapers, 44, or 69.9 per cent were published in Riga [5].

My aim in this paper is to analyse the contents of the press in Latvia during the period between May 1996 and May 1999, drawing on both the national and regional newspapers, Latvian, as well as Russian. (Because of the time limit, I will skip the discussion of the quantitative data yielded by content analysis.)

In the scope of my analysis, there were 230 articles from 25 newspapers, the biggest Latvian and Russian daily, evening and weekly publications (Diena, Neatkariga Riga Avize; SM, SM-Segodna, Respublika, Panorama Latvii, Jauna Avize, Vakara Zinas etc.), as well as some regional organs (Kurzemnieks, Dinaburg and others) among them. (There are almost no materials on NRMs in magazines.)

From among the analysed articles, the biggest number, or 95 [41 per cent] articles, dealt with the phenomenon of the NRMs in general. In most other cases, one particular religious movement is being discussed. The Jehovah's Witnesses have been the focus of journalists' attention most frequently, in 31case [13 per cent]. The next in popularity is the charismatic movement The New Generation, with 23 [10 per cent] articles; the 3rd place belongs to Scientology - 12 articles [5 per cent]. Satanists have been discussed in 11 articles [4,7 per cent], Moonies in 10 articles [4 per cent], Mormons and the Vissarion movement in 6 articles each, Aum Shinri-kyo in 5 articles.

The common term for new religious movements (henceforth: NRMs) and religious minorities in newspapers and periodicals published in Latvia is 'sect' which automatically implies a judgmental attitude (the only exception being articles and interviews prepared by several scholars of religion). Such a negative stance regarding religious minorities, however, is nothing new for the press in Latvia; a similar vocabulary was also used in the period of Latvian independence in 1920s and 1930s, as well as during Soviet occupation after the World War II. The Baptists and the Seventh-day Adventists were considered 'sectarians' then. 'Take care - sects are advancing!' - is the underlying statement in today's publications (and respective newspaper articles may have such a heading too). In spite of this ideological bias, several journalists manage to draw a less simplified picture of the subject matter. But I will return to that later.

Now let us try to trace back the underlying idea dealt with in press articles: 'In what a way do sects threaten our society?' Here are some of the answers: (1) foreign religious cults and sects, both Occidental and Oriental in their origin, pose a threat to national identity; (2) they undermine the values fostered by the traditional Christian churches; (2) they abduct children from their parents; (3) they tear up families; (4) destroy the individuality of the human being; (5) control human behaviour and emotions; (6) often make their members beg or commit fraud to secure financial means for the sake of the 'idea'; (7) they are often armed, and thus pose a threat to the national security; (8) spread slander about the state; (9) rob the human being's dignity by abusing him/her sexually and materially; (10) endanger the human life; (11) create anti-social environment. 'Sectarians' are compared to 'cancer cells in an enfeebled body'. It is claimed that 'sects aim at capturing the political and economical power and enforcing their beliefs on others' (..) (It seems that quite a number of these statements are taken from the vocabulary of Russian anti-cultist A. Dvorkin).

Two institutions, the Luther Academy of the Lutheran Church of Latvia and the Centre for Criminological Study jointly held a conference on 'New religious movements (NRMs) and their detrimental influence on society in spiritual, social and legal perspective' in January 1998. The press reflected the conference organisers' attitude towards the allegedly 'destructive and totalitarian sects and cults' by publishing a comment under the heading "No to Psychological Fascism!" [6] The conference adopted a Resolution on the destructive religious organisations, a document that expresses the standpoint of both the mainstream churches and a large portion of the society. Let me quote a passage from the Resolution:

"During the fifty years of religious illiteracy and total atheism, people have lost the capacity to critically evaluate what the religious organisations offer them. Under current social and economical conditions, the traditional churches, in their turn, are not always able to provide the spiritual care. The state does not sufficiently support the important work carried out by traditional churches in providing spiritual and social care for the people. New, obscure and unpredictable, yet richly financed religious and pseudo-religious organisations are flowing into Latvia from abroad, founding their branches here and actively establishing contacts with local people. Some of these organisations are involved in destructive activities and are funded from sources which cause suspicion. (..) The destructive sects curtail human freedom of conscience, damage the mental and physical health of the people; the situation is particularly worrying what concerns children and adolescents. With respect to the activities of destructive religious organisations and the problem of human freedom of conscience, it has to be concluded:

Quite often health professionals are asked by the press to express their views; doctors' statements are mostly anti-sectarian. Here is one of such statements: "(..) By getting involved in sects and cults, people cause damage not only to themselves, but also to the family and the state. A well-known psychiatrist, sexologist and hypnotherapist concludes unequivocally: "[S]ectarianism poses a threat to the state, nation and all the mankind. All the people will surrender to the sects in the future. It is quite likely that the sects will wage war against one another because of money." The same doctor gives a portray of the charismatic movement "The New Generation" in the interview headed The Sect "The New Generation" Disgraces the Human Being by Animal Hypnosis: "(1) In the orgies of the New Generation one can discern the violation of the supplicants' human rights, for their health is subject to dangerous procedures, they are being cheated and psychologically humiliated. (2) The leader holds the crowd of several thousand people in his absolute power, and they are ready to uncritically obey his orders. Such a situation can only be reached by hypnosis. (3) Crime is being promoted, for one can get an immediate forgiveness of sins in this sect. (4) There is no doubt that young people are deprived of self-development and education. People become dependent of this religion as they may become dependent of drugs, alcohol, etc. (..) (6) The sect is against any kind of psychotherapeutic treatment, for it too makes use of it [hypnosis]." [8]

From among NRMs in Latvia, The New Generation is the second most popular subject matter among the journalists, remaining just behind Jehovah's Witnesses. But not all the articles are written in derogatory tone, like the one quoted above. Some writers try to get a deeper insight into the phenomenon.

It should be pointed out that 90 per cent of The New Generation followers are Russian-speakers. In Russian newspapers and periodicals one can find discussions of the reasons why the youth joins this movement. One of the articles endeavours to analyse their respective social and psychological situation. The journalist portrays several types of young people: "(1) Some adolescents are only interested in a kind of entertainment which go along with drinking and sex; (2) Another category attend prestigious schools where economic trend dominates. They may occasionally attend a gathering organised by the sect, but, as soon as they hear talks about offerings of more than 5 Lats, they will sneer and turn away. (3) Those who despise pop culture, listen classical music, and engage in philosophical discussions, are expecting some change and do not want to subject themselves to any common principles; they will know what to answer the preacher. (4) There are also young people who reject the flatness of modern show-business, who are seeking for something more sincere, but often they are perplexed by today's cruel reality. The most paradoxical is the fact that the sects do not zealously hunt for these souls, but the young people whose brain is not stupefied by discos yet, themselves are looking for the Word of God. They are not atheists. Having listened to the texts of songs sung Russian rock groups (..) they are familiar with Christian motives. They are spontaneous Christians who feel no need for ritual yet, but are longing for prayers." [9]

The press also reflects the tensions between The New Generation and the Russian Orthodox Church. Thus, not long ago the movement's leader had invited to their service in Riga a Russian Orthodox priest, Fr. Oleg Stenayev and the leader of Pentecostals in Russia, pastor Sergey Ryahovsky. It is noteworthy that O. Stenayev is the head of the Orthodox Church's Rehabilitation Centre for the victims of the totalitarian sects in Moscow!

O. Stenayev, however, did not arrive although his visit had been approved by the head of the Orthodox Church Missions Department, Archbishop Joann; the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia Alexy II had not had any objections either. Just before departure, however, a message from Riga's Russian Orthodox Eparchy came, stating that archbishop Alexander would not welcome an Orthodox missionary. The leader of The New Generation could not hide his disappointment and resentment against archbishop Alexander: "When I invite guests, my next doors neighbour has no right prevent them from stepping over my threshold. In the period when the Pope is meeting Iranian President, in order to improve the relations between Christians and Muslims, the Orthodox Church in Latvia wants to see neither the way towards concord, nor the great ends of spiritual unity; it categorically objects to the arrival of an Orthodox missionary. But we will pray for our offenders." [10]

Recently, interviews with some members of The New Generation have been published in a Latvian magazine. Among them are people with quite different backgrounds: Baiba is a professional artist, working with textiles; Lòga works for a bank and studies law at university; Arnis has graduated from a crafts school and works as an interior designer. Lilita is advertising manager of the Latvian Christian Radio now; she tells her life story and how she became 'baptised by the Holy Spirit'. [11]

As the statistics on the publications in Latvia shows, Jehovah's Witnesses have attracted attention of the press very often. In most of the articles they are unequivocally labelled a 'destructive sect'. JW occurred in the focus of the press in 1996 when the Latvian Ministry of Justice refused to register the JW as a religious organisation; the JW reacted by suing the Ministry of Justice.

The situation was aggravated by a tragic event; Jelena, a girl from JW, a minor, lost a considerable amount of blood after being injured in an accident, but her parents refused the blood transfusion that was needed to perform a surgery.

The information in the press was pretty contradictory. Initially, the newspapers reported: "The doctors warned that the outcome would be lethal without blood transfusion, for several liters of blood had been lost as a result of hip fracture. According to the criminal law, it qualifies as a crime, if a person whose life is threatened does not receive the necessary help. Thus, whatever the situation, the doctor's duty would be to save the girl's life. JW's suppose that it would be a violation of the law, for the Medical Treatment Regulations make provision that the patient, or the closest relative has the right to refuse the offered diagnostic examination or treatment." [12]

Five days later, the JW's opinion was published: "The doctors did not ensure Jelena the proper treatment; they did not explain how critical the girl's condition was; only after three days had passed did they announce that the haemoglobin level had dropped. JW reacted by supplying the doctors with an expensive medication, erythroprotein, that stimulates the production of red blood cells in the bone marrow. The doctors promised to treat the girl with this medicament, therefore JW did not proceed with their idea to invite specially prepared doctors. However, the girl only received the first dosage two days later." [13]

Also a number of doctors expressed their thoughts in the press; the majority of them conceded that the law was contradictory, and that the Ministry of Welfare had no definite stance on such matters either; they agreed that the situation was further complicated by the fact that the patient was a legal minor; and the information on alternative means of treatment was so scarce. Only two weeks after the event the official standpoint of the State Minister of Health was published. It was emphasised that the emergency doctors had acted in accordance with the law and condemned the doctors who had argued for enforced treatment in the cases like that. The alternative methods of treatment were to be elaborated.

The respective alternative methods of treatment were discussed during the First Baltic Symposium "Blood Preservation Methods in Surgery" in Riga, on 18th and 19th of April 1997. The Associate Editor of the Watch Tower Publications, Director, Public Affairs Office, Watch Tower International Offices (New York, USA) Mr. James N. Pellechia had arrived to Riga at that time and attended the symposium. An interview with him was published in a Latvian daily newspaper. Mr. Pellechia said: "JWs are interested to receive a qualified medical help. We appreciate a possibility to make a choice. (..) I have ascertained here that Latvia is progressing and that Latvian government wishes to ensure the freedom of choice." He also quoted The American Medical (Journal), 1993: "The mortality rate among all the JWs who have refused blood transfusion is only 1 per cent." [14]

Now, in April 1999, an evening newspaper published an article informing that there have been considerable advances in Latvia on what concerns elaborating and applying methods of treatment as alternatives to blood transfusion. It was reported that in the State Hospital of Traumatology and Orthopaedics, Prof. Konstantins Kalnberzs had performed a unique surgery using a special equipment (cell saver) donated by some JW congregation in United States.

The patient was a member of JW who had refused donor's blood.

The reporter also briefly related the patient's life story and how she came to profess the JW faith. In this case the journalist resisted the dominant tendency to reproduce stereotype viewpoints on a religious minority and to pass a hasty and superficial judgement. [15]

It can be added that 3 JW congregations were registered in Latvia in 1998, and another 3 this year.

Not long time ago, a Latvian daily newspaper "Jauna Avize" came forth with the following question: "Can we automatically count the traditional as positive, and the new as negative?" The editors invited the representatives of both the traditional confessions and NRMs to take part in a round table discussion. However, the leaders of the so called traditional religions, namely, of the Latvian Lutheran Church, the Union of the Baptist Congregations, and the Roman Catholic Riga Curia stood aloof, with the pretext that they had nothing to do with 'these sects'. [16]

Among the discussants were JWs, Christian Science, New Apostolic Church, and the ISKCON (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness). The journalist commented that there were no theological conflicts and that the 'innovators' expressed their willingness to come together more often in the future to try to work together and to pray for the sake of Latvia. The newspaper concluded: ".. thus, the traditionalists are only interested in their own followers." [17]

Paradoxically, some newspapers which are all too ready to condemn the NRMs, have columns of the New Age type materials. Furthermore, it is hardly a coincidence that Christian NRMs are criticised more severely than non-Christian ones.

    1. In the press articles, there is a conspicuous tendency to manipulate with the popular prejudices and the 'received wisdom'.
    2. Actually, the society in Latvia seems not to have been ready for the dramatic changes it had to encounter in the recent past, and the changes in religious life is no exception in this respect.
    3. Lacking impartial, unbiased information about the new, the people may react with suspicion, denial, even manifest 'moral panics', which is then ever more enhanced by the press. Confusion is great indeed; Satanists, Mormons, Solar Templars, Jehovah's Witnesses are all tarred by the same brush.
    4. Several publications are advocating the founding of an anticult movement in Latvia. The projects that promote "decoding" and deprogramming of 'sect victims' receive a wide recognition.
    5. Moreover, high-standing state officials often interpret the democratic reforms in the field of religion as a bitter necessity, rather than as a logical development. Or is it just a diplomatic position, to avoid annoying the leaders of the mainstream churches? At the same time, the country's legislation is being co-ordinated with the democratic norms of the European Union. That is shown by two international seminars in Riga [18], devoted to religious freedom issues to educate civil officers, lawyers, religious officials, educators and scientists about that. And there was a typical situation that these event did not cause any public resonance, as the majority of press ignored them.


1. 1998 Statistical Yearbook of Latvia. Riga, 1999, pp.64-65.

2. Latvijas Prese 1997. gads. Statistisko materialu krajums. Riga, 1998, p.102 [Press of Latvia,1997].

3. ibid., p.102.

4. ibid., p. 99.

5. ibid., p.100.

6. Weekly of Latvian Lutherans "Svetdienas Rits", February 7, 1998, p.1.

7. ibid., p.2.

8. Evening newspaper [ "yellow", or "tabloid" ] "Vakara Zinas", January 1, 1999, pp.5-6.

9. Daily newspaper "Chas", March 16, 1999, p. 8.

10. ibid, p. 8.

11. Women magazine "Una", January 1, 1999.

12. Daily newspaper "Diena", September 13, 1996, p.1.

13. Daily newspaper "Diena", September18, 1996, p.4.

14. Daily newspaper "Neatkariga Rita Avize", April 18, 1997.

15. Evening newspaper "Rigas Balss", April 14, 1999.

16. Daily newspaper "Jauna Avize", February 13, 1999.

17. Ibid.

18. October 26-27, 1998, Seminar organized by European Council and March 18-19, 1999, Conference on Religious Pluralism in Nothern Europe organized by Professors Lee Boothby and W.Cole Durham, Jr .

See other texts from Nikandrs Gills:

Jehovah's Witnesses: New Problems with Military Service in Latvia

Jehovah’s Witnesses: New Problems with Military Service in Latvia - An Update (Sept. 24, 1999) with the texts of court decisions on the cases of Roman Nemiro No. 2-2927/5, 1999 and Vladimir Gamayunov, No. 2-3167/5, 1999

Amendment to the Law On Compulsory Military Service Adopted in Latvia: Effects on Jehovah's Witnesses

[Home Page] [Cos'è il CESNUR] [Biblioteca del CESNUR] [Testi e documenti] [Libri] [Convegni]

[Home Page] [About CESNUR] [CESNUR Library] [Texts & Documents] [Book Reviews] [Conferences]