Paper presented at CESNURS 12th International Conference Religious and Spiritual Minorities: Towards the 21th Century, September 10, 1998, Torino, Italy
New Religions in Latvia in 1997/1998
A paper presented at CESNUR 98, Turin, by Dr Solveiga Krumina-Konkova, Director of the Academic Centre for the Study of Religions, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, University of Latvia
During the last century spiritual life in Latvia has been interesting, among other things, because of the sufficiently tolerant co-existence of a great number of very different religions. For example, such tolerant co-existence of religious life in Latvia was apparent in 1920s and in the beginning of 1930s when, alongside the strengthening of the major traditional confessions , the forms and types of religious expression diversified. In the middle of 30s, there were about 300 different smaller religious sub-branches and groups in Latvia. A large number of religious organizations were registered as societies.
The Soviet occupation of 1940 and the years of the World War II, the German occupation and the following years of the Soviet regime changed the situation dramatically. All religious organizations in Latvia were under repression and threats of ban and liquidation. At the same time, I think, there was actually no rift in the continuity of spiritual life of the people: not only the memories of religious experience were preserved but this experience itself was kept alive. Ban of one or another religion does not yet mean that such religion stops to exist. Just as the closure of a church does not yet mean the end of the parish. Under the "domestic conditions" in Latvia, there were not only purely religious movements active but also certain religious-ethical and religious-philosophical movements, as well as some religious movements that were not regarded as such at the beginning. One of the very interesting examples of such kind is the development of the Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba Society at the beginning of the 1970s. Since that time ideas of this movement came in Latvia, especially among poets and artists. At the beginning of the 1980s, when it became possible to take the literature from abroad, several groups were formed, in which the religious literature was studied and translated. Translations were secretly multiplied and distributed. The teaching of Sai Baba became rather popular in Latvia: sometimes through translations and sometimes through original writings. For example, some ideas have become well known by the poems of Imants Ziedonis and the fairy-tales of Alise Eka.
The religious life in Latvia experienced an especially vigorous growth at the time of political liberalization and democratization that started around 1985. From that time alongside with the revival of so-called traditional religions such as the Lutheran Church, Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Church, the Old-Believers, Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists and Jewish believers , we can also record the constant entry of new religions, not traditional for Latvia.
At present the number of adherents to new religious and spiritual minorities is proportionally rather small - about 1.5% of the number of total permanent inhabitants in 1997/98 (that is, around 2,6 million people). At the same time the dynamic development of those religions is evident.
1. Although in Latvia material incentives are one of the reasons why people belong to a new religion, we should seek essential causes not only there. One of the major reasons why people turn to some of the new religions, is their search for identity. If they fail to find their place in the current social processes, which in Latvia include, among other things, the idea of realization of the nation-state, they look for their niche elsewhere, and sometimes they find it in some non-traditional religions. Another (perhaps more metaphysical) reason is the major changes in the understanding of the essence of religion and its role in the life of people.
2. Like elsewhere in the world, the growth in numbers of the different religions is mainly on account of the youth. Latvia is no exception in this respect. However, it is also typical for Latvia, that people from the middle and older generation also join these new religious movements. These are people who, under the communist regime, abandoned or did not acquire any religious beliefs and are now looking for solutions to their religious needs. These people give stability to their congregations, although it sometimes turns into conservatism and routine.
3. The new religions in Latvia are multi-ethnic. However, the majority of their followers are Russian-speaking people. They include not only Russians but also people of other ethnic minorities plus part of Latvians who do not speak Latvian. Not speaking the Latvian language makes it difficult for people to join some of the traditional Latvian religion. At the time being, the services of the new religions are more often held in Russian, and therefore there are no such language and cultural barriers. Recently, however, division according to the ethnic principle is taking place also in some of the new religions.
4. Since most of the new religions in Latvia are currently only in their formation stages, they usually have a tendency to self-isolation. The fact that they are sometimes spontaneously involved in public processes cannot be regarded as a conscious need for integration into the local community and culture. It is rather an adaptation dictated by the instinct of survival of one or another religious minority.
I will now present some more concrete facts about new religions in Latvia (as of 1998).
The most popular among new religions are different religions of Christian orientation. While at present it is almost impossible to get figures on all these religious minorities, I have data on some of the largest. Thus, I would especially mention such charismatic congregations of the new wave . as Jauna Paaudze [The New Generation], Prieka Vests[Message of Hope], Dzivibas Vards (The Word of Life] and some others. Their adherents believe in a living God, that true Christianity today must help people to solve their real problems, and that this is not possible without different gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is typical for all these congregations that they have strong leaders, and that youth makes up a large part of their followers.
Now, some closer details about several of them. The Christian congregation Jauna Paaudze was formed in Riga in 1989. Initially, its core consisted of 200 people. At the time being, this movement is widespread in the whole of Latvia, especially in places with strong Russian-speaking communities. At the beginning of 1998, there were around 6000 active members of this congregation in Latvia . The year 1995 was a breaking point in the development of this congregation: the number of adherents in Riga doubled. This congregation has an interesting and rather typical organization of religious activities: in Riga, for example, there are around 850 home groups consisting each of about 5 members. In the whole of Latvia, there are approximately 1000 such cells." The religious life organized according to this principle without doubt is much more intensive as compared with the traditional churches." It should be noted that Jaunâ Paaudze is a purely Latvian movement, although it has connections with similar movements in Germany and Russia.
Prieka Vests is a very similar charismatic congregation. Its founders came basically from the Riga Baptist congregation Golgâta [Calvary]. In 1991 the number of members of this congregation was about 150-200. At the end of 1997 - beginning of 1998 there were already about 2000 active members of this congregation in Riga. Throughout Latvia there are about 8000 supporters of Prieka Vests. The major difference between the two afore-mentioned congregations is probably their ethnic composition: Prieka Vests consists more of Latvians.
In 1986, the congregation Dzivibas Vards [The Word of Life] started its development as a family church. Today this congregation is active in many Latvian cities. This congregation is one of the rare charismatic congregations in Latvia that has very close contacts with the similar congregations from abroad, especially with the congregations of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship from Sweden and Denmark.
Among new religions of Christian orientation The New Apostolic Church of North Rhine-Westphalia from Germany is also active in Latvia. The missionaries of this church appeared in Latvia at the beginning of 1990s. According to available information this church has about 800 followers in Latvia.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints or Mormons also is quite a new religion in Latvia. The first four missionaries of this church arrived in Latvia in 1992. The first congregation of Mormons in Latvia, consisting of 48 members, was established in 1993. This congregation was split in two in 1994. The division was according to the ethnic principle. As of March 1997, there were about 245 members of the Church (65 in Latvian and 180 in the Russian congregation). At the end of 1997 the Latvian congregation reached 85 members. Unfortunately, we have no more recent data about the Russian congregation.
I have also to mention the Jehovahs Witnesses that had about 1643 preachers and 3956 supporters in 1997, although this religious minority is not officially registered in Latvia. This religion has a very interesting history in Latvia that will be reflected in this conference in a paper by Nikandrs Gills. For this reason I do not linger about this religion more.
The Unification Church is also represented in Latvia. Although this movement is not registered in Latvia officially as a religious organization, it carries out its activities through the mediation of different registered non-governmental organizations, for example, Sieviesu federacija par mieru pasaule [Womens Federation for World Peace], Gimenu federacija par mieru visâ pasaule [Family Federation for World Peace]. At the time being, the core of this organization consists of 55 persons, while the total membership is about 100 people . According to data given by this organization, altogether 10 Family Festivals have been held in Latvia. The collegiate organization CARP also works here. The core of this organization is around 40-50 people, while together it includes about 250 persons. At present, members of the CARP represent their organization as an organization that fights for peace and against AIDS.
Beside the latter organizations, there are several other more or less Christian-oriented groups active in Latvia.
Among the Eastern-oriented new religions in Latvia The International Society for Krishna Consciousness is the biggest one. At the time being it has 3 missions and temples in Latvia. There are altogether 200 consecrated persons plus about 3000 followers. Initially, the attitude of most of the Latvian population towards the activities of this movement was strictly negative. Currently these attitudes have become more tolerant, although the dominant view among the public is that this religion is absolutely foreign and unacceptable for most people in our country.
There are also the Sri Chinmoy movement, the movement of Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, the Baha'i faith, Sahaj Marg movement, ,Brahma Kumaris Spiritual University, a Sukyo Mahikari Center, an Eckankar congregation, the Messianic congregation Joshua and other Eastern-oriented religious organizations in Latvia at present. Unfortunately, most of these organizations are not open to researchers, and we have no closer information about them. It looks like these organizations have a rather limited membership: approximately about 20-30 members in each of them.
There are also several religions active in Latvia, the character of which is very eclectic. One of those is the Last Testaments Church or Vissarion congregation. This is a new religion with the typical features of Russian messianism. The services of this group are conducted only in Russian, emphasizing the special messianic role of Russia and of the Russian language in the unification of religions. Therefore also the followers of Vissarion in Latvia are mainly from the Russian-speaking community. There are no precise data on the members in this movement here. The believers themselves maintain that about 700-1000 people have accepted this teaching in Latvia.
We can expect that new religious movements will continue to enter the religious life of Latvia. Such probable further development of the religious situation is determined by the ethnic, social, cultural, psychological and other diversity of society (especially in the major cities). Therefore we can also speak about different social structures of various religions. The plurality of religious life is also determined by the general democratic development of society. Certainly, the Latvian public must be ready for this religious pluralism. Unfortunately, there are no services developed in Latvia yet taking care of the related problems - neither of informative nor social-care type, which would be very necessary in this situation. At the time being, the relations between the adherents of the new religions and the rest of the public are often rather dramatic and are based on mutual prejudices. This is evidenced by the growing attitudes against sects or "cults", even among some authorities. We have to note the very fast development of an anti-cult movement in Latvia with links with similar movements abroad, for example in Germany and France. It is worth noting that the anti-cult movement in Latvia does not limit its targets to such organizations as the Unification Church, the Church of Scientology or the Jehovahs Witnesses. In Latvia anti-cultists also struggle against charismatic Christian congregations that have generally not been regarded as destructive cults elsewhere. It is unfortunate that these anti-cult activities have had an important influence on our public services and legislation.
1.According to the census data from 1935 (five years before the Soviet occupation) which also reflected the formal affiliation of Latvian inhabitants with one or another religion, all the major Christian confessions were active in Latvia: 55,15% of the 1,950,502 Latvian inhabitants) belonged to the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 24,45% belonged to the Roman Catholic Church, 8,94% to the Orthodox Church, 5,50% were Old-Believers. Baptists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Adventists, Episcopal Methodists and "other Protestants" together comprised 0,98%. In 1935 there were also 4,79% Jewish believers.
2.According to the information got by S.Krumina-Konkova and N. Gills at the beginning of 1998, there were about 339,408 Evangelical Lutherans, about 500,000 Roman Catholics, about 300,000 Orthodox Believers, 6,147 Baptists, about 70,000 Old Believers, as well as 3, 927 Seventh Day Adventists and 5,576-strong Jewish Religious Congregation (Community) active in Latvia. Besides there were about. 6,000 Pentecostals and 600 Methodists; these are not officially considered as traditional religions in Latvia.
3.Here I see some essential similarities with the "new paradigm churches" investigated by Donald E. Miller in his recent book Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
4. Those who take part at Jaunâ Paaudze events at least twice a week.
5. Data given by representatives of this organization in January 1998.
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