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Lutherans enjoy a revival in Baltics

Witold Janczys
October 30, 2017

The Soviets deported or shot Baltic clerics and worshippers and destroyed their churches. Both Orthodox Christians and Lutherans were the targets of religious persecution.

Litauen Evangelisch-lutherische Kirche in Vilnius
Image: Alma Pater

According to statistics from the year 1904, the Evangelical Lutheran Church once owned 287 churches within the territory of the Russian Empire and had more than 1 million members, from the northwest to the Baltics to the Caucasus and Central Asia. Under Tsarist rule, the Lutheran Church was subdivided into monoethnic German, Finnish, Swedish and Estonian congregations.

The Lutherans' heyday in the region came in the interwar period, when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were independent countries. University theological faculties trained new priests, and congregations grew.

"Between 1920 and 1940, there were about 200,000-250,000 believers in Lithuania," Mindaugas Sabutis, a bishop with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lithuania, told DW. "About 10 percent of the population of the country were Lutherans." There were even more believers in Estonia and Latvia, where the church traditionally had deeper roots.

By comparison, in 1914 the Russian Orthodox Church had more than 54,000 churches and monasteries. As the empire's biggest and most influential church, it was the main target of persecution of Christians in the Soviet Union, which was established in 1922 and prosecuted strict prohibitions on religion. By 1987, only 6,893 Orthodox churches and 15 monasteries remained.

'Parishes dissolved completely'

When the Baltic countries were occupied by the Russians in 1940 as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the persecution of Christian priests and believers began. According to the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, all Christian organizations were dissolved and church property confiscated. Priests were banished to Siberia.

This was the start of a difficult period for believers in Lithuania, too. "In January and February 1941, about 40,000 ethnic Germans left Lithuania," Sabutis said. "Some parishes dissolved completely."

There was also repression in Latvia in 1940. Many churches were turned into warehouses, workshops, clubs and cinemas. "The victims of the first mass deportations were priests and active congregation members," Davis Bruvers, the deputy head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia's international relations department, told DW.

Red Army advances

As the Nazi occupation of the Baltics came to an end in the autumn of 1944, about 80,000 people fled Estonia, fearing persecution by the Soviet Red Army. Among them were 10,000 Lutherans. When Estonia was once again absorbed into the Soviet Union, the persecution continued.

The situation was similar in Latvia. Pastors who stayed behind were sent to Siberia. "Only a few survived," Bruvers said. He added that the Soviets did not allow churches that had been damaged during the war to be repaired, meaning that they fell further into ruin. "The laws were strict," Bruvers said. "You weren't allowed to work as a deacon, and youth work was forbidden." It was against the law to print Bibles.

In Lithuania, too, many practicing Christians fled the Red Army, fearing for their lives. After that, Bishop Sabutis said, there were no Lutheran parishes in big Lithuanian cities any more.

Litauen Bischof Mindaugas Sabutis -Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche
The repression is over, but Sabutis said Lutherans have not fully recovered in LithuaniaImage: DW/W. Janzcys

Soviet Union collapses

The situation in the Baltic countries only began to improve toward the end of the 1980s. Starting in 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev, had begun perestroika: the restructuring of the social, political and economic systems of the Soviet Union. This process was closely connected to the spread of the freedom of opinion and freedom of the press under the slogan "glasnost" — openness.

It was only after 1990, when Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia regained their independence, that the church was really reborn. Today, both Lutherans and Christians of other denominations can practice their faith freely in the Baltic countries.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lithuania currently has about 20,000 members. In Estonia, 108,000 people registered as Lutherans in the 2011 census. About 700,000 people identify as Lutherans in Latvia — or at least attend church from time to time. Forty-two thousand say they go to services regularly and are actively involved in their church.

"We got the majority of the church property back," Sabutis said, "but not, alas, the members we lost in so many tragic incidents."