Making Room for Romuva?8 min read

 In Analysis, Civil Society, Eastern Europe
The Summer Solstice in June is often the only time when Paganism and Native faiths in Europe take centre stage. In ancient oak groves across the countryside across Lithuania, believers gather at the sacred sites of worship for the Romuva native faith in Lithuania, an ancient Baltic religious tradition that has existed in Lithuania since pre-Christian days. For worshippers of Romuva in Lithuania, June came with some seriously welcome news, as the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) sided with worshippers in a case against the State. 

The ECtHR ruling found that Lithuania violated three articles of the European Convention on Human Rights when it failed to recognise Romuva as a traditional religion and provide State recognition. The ruling is a landslide victory for native faiths in Europe. At the same time, it has shown how Lithuania’s current approach to human rights is a paradox. 

In 2018, a proposal was launched with the Seimas (the Lithuanian Parliament) to consider recognising Romuva, particularly as the religion promoted ethnic culture and played a vital role in Lithuanian religious and cultural spheres. The initial stages of recognition went smoothly, and the general opinion in Vilnius was that the vote would pass. Yet, on 27 June 2019, the vote failed. Out of 141 members of the Seimas, 83 members were present, of whom 31 voted against and 15 abstained, meaning support for state recognition of Romuva failed to reach a majority. The lack of recognition denies worshippers their basic religious rights as outlined in the Lithuanian Constitution. 

Romuva: understanding Native faith in Lithuania

Religious suppression under the atheist USSR, and subsequent growing movements of nationalism and self-determination within the Baltic SSR nations, led to the emergence of several alternative religious movements within Central and Eastern Europe. Lithuania was no exception. Modern native faiths and neo-pagan religions have origins in local ethnic and folklore traditions from the pre-Christian era.  

Considered the last pagan nation in Europe, Lithuania converted to Christianity in 1387, centuries after some of its European neighbours. This pagan heritage and its traditions have bolstered neo-pagan and native faith developments in the country. Romuva is the most prominent, amassing around 5,100 followers according to the 2011 census. Inīja Trinkūnienė has been Krivis (the leading cleric), and the first female Krivis of Romuva, since her husband’s death in 2014.  

Romuva considers itself a formation of “common Baltic spiritual heritage”. Around 30 Romuvos (community centres of Romuva faith) exist throughout the country. Like other native religions in Europe, Romuva is polytheistic. It centres around seven core truths about the symbiotic relationship between humanity and nature. Sites of worship are often within natural landscapes, in ancient sacred sites known as alkaiSamogitian Sanctuary (Žemaičių alkas, in Lithuanian) is one of the most well-known sites, which sits upon a 15th-century pagan shrine and an ancient observatory. 

Officially registered as a religious community in May 1992 in the newly independent Republic of Lithuania, Romuva was categorised as a non-traditional religion. Nonetheless, Lithuanian law states that 25 years after religion is registered, its status can be reviewed, and it may be granted state recognition. Professor Michael Strmiska surmises that Romuva had “the advantage of being very much respected and established ever since the period of Lithuania gaining independence when Romuva emerged as a bastion” of tradition. However, the vote in June 2019 suggests the contrary. 

It was conservative backlash and disagreement from Christian religious leaders that prevented Romuva from reaching the necessary majority. Vilnius’ Archbishop Gintaras Grušas led the backlash. In an open letter, he stated that from a “historical-scientific point of view, the term ‘ancient Baltic religious community’ […] is historically-scientifically meaningless, unreasonable, and therefore misleading”. Another argument he presented was that despite registering as a non-traditional religion in 1992, the religious activities of Romuva did not start until 2001. He argued that they had not been operational for 25 years and, therefore, a review could not happen. Non-recognition means worshippers cannot gain tax credits for their religious sites, social insurance for their clergy members, or recognition of their marriages. In essence, their rights and practices are invalid in the eyes of the State. 

Lithuania’s religious context

The Seimas’ vote and the statements of various religious groups in Lithuania have presented Romuva as fundamentally at odds with the country’s religious landscape. Although there is no official state religion, support for Catholicism in the country is high, with around 77% of the population self-identifying as Catholic. A further 6% of those in Lithuania identify with other Christian faiths, whilst 15.5% did not align themselves to any particular religion or religion. The remaining 0.8% identified with other faiths (including native faiths, neo-pagan religions, Islam, and Judaism).  

Similarly to the situation in Poland, the fierce opposition of the Catholic Church to the Soviet Union in the 20th century, as well as the Church’s close connection to the emerging nationalist and self-determination movements, cemented societal support for Catholicism in newly independent Lithuania. One of the symbols of Catholicism’s connection to national identity is the Hill of Crosses, which contains over 100,000 crucifixes and has been present since the 19th century, despite having been deliberately destroyed four times by occupying forces. 

Catholics were some of the fiercest critics of Romuva. The possibility that Romuva, if granted recognition, would be included in teaching religious education alarmed many conservatives and Catholics. MPs belonging to the Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats and the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania-Christian Families Alliance formed a bloc and voted against or abstained from voting for the recognition of Romuva. Their votes came alongside several disparaging remarks, including that Romuva sought to destroy Christianity and that it was “supported by the KGB during the Soviet Occupation”, despite explicit evidence that pagans also faced persecution by Soviet authorities. 

Human rights, home and away

Worshippers of Romuva chose to challenge the Seimas’ vote and the statements made by MPs that were “false and defamatory” in July 2019. They did not seek financial compensation but sought recognition of their religious rights, as outlined in the Constitution, and a retraction of defamatory statements. 

Since the Seimas refused to recognise Romuva and ignored calls to withdraw the statements, Romuva worshippers appealed to ECtHR. The Court’s decision in June 2021 found that Lithuania violated the Convention on three counts, including the article on freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. The ruling was a historic win as it clearly stated that minority religions are entitled to religious rights as well as the financial and land compensation awarded to other faiths. 

At the same time, the refusal to accept Romuva as a traditional religion, alongside the disparaging comments made, have emphasised that Lithuania’s human rights approach has been selective. Lithuania received positive international press when it provided protection to Belarus’ leading opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and refused to extradite her to Belarus. It has also extended its deadline for the resettlement applications of Venezuelans with Lithuania heritage attempting to flee the political crisis in Venezuela until October 2021. These decisions, alongside Lithuania’s move to sanction China for recent human rights concerns, have resulted in international acclaim. Despite overwhelming support in Lithuania for international human rights protection, questions remain on the extent to which freedom of religion is respected at home.  

The place of Romuva in Lithuania’s future 

The Seimas vote against Romuva also raises the question as to what threat is posed by 5,100 citizens among a population of 3.43 million. In reality, Lithuania, alongside other nations in Central and Eastern Europe, is facing disproportionate levels of emigration, low birth rates and an ageing population. The population has been steadily declining. The 2021 census (due to be published in 2022) will showcase how the population has changed in just ten years. Professor john a powell, Director of the Othering & Belonging Institute, assessed that in societies undergoing dramatic and rapid change, “a frequent response is for people to narrowly define who qualifies as a full member of society”. Those who find themselves outside the definition become the ‘other’, depicted as oppositional to the common goals of society. Minority groups often become focal points for this projected social anxiety about change.

The resistance and fighting strength of the Catholic Church in Lithuania for citizens under Soviet occupation encouraged the narrative that Catholicism is synonymous with being Lithuanian. In turn, those who appear to disagree or challenge the Church are often labelled ‘anti-patriotic’. This may explain the substantial backlash against Romuva led by the Catholic Church. 

In a European context, the ECtHR ruling proves that neo-pagan or native faiths can successfully fight for their religious rights. For Lithuania, the judgement may encourage a move towards religious pluralism in the country, including expanding religious education and acceptance in future generations. The ruling will provide direction to Lithuania to reconsider the benefits of diversity and continue to develop its domestic human rights framework. 

“The indigenous Lithuanian religion did not die. It was kept alive by farmers and country villages who maintained the old ways, even under the Christianity and Soviet rule”, said Inīja Trinkūnienė in 2015. Her words are no less true after the June 2021 ruling. Romuva will not disappear, but can contemporary Lithuania and its political elite find room in the country’s future for the native faith that shaped its past? 

Featured image: High Priestess Inija Trinkūnienė celebrates Jorė in a Romuva village in Lithuania / RNS photo Vytas Daraškevičius
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