Religions of Latvia

Religions (Faiths) In Latvia: Extensive Guide

Religions: Introduction

Latvia is a multidenominational Christian nation.

Lutherans are its largest community, followed by 25%-35%. It predominates in the Western and Central Latvia.

Catholicism is the faith of 20%-25% of Latvia‘s inhabitants and the prime religion of Latgale (Eastern Latvia).

Russian Orthodox faith (18%-22%) is mostly followed by Russophone Soviet settlers and their descendants.

Old Believers (schismatic Orthodoxes who came as refugees to Latgale ~17th century) have ~1,7% as their followers.

There are many smaller, mainly protestant Christian denominations that are all together followed by 1,5%-2,5% of Latvia‘s population.

Largest non-Christian faiths are neo-Pagan Dievturi, Jewish and Muslim (in that order) but they are each followed by just 0,01%-0,05% of total population.

Under the Soviet occupation, atheism was promoted by the state, while the religious were discriminated. This hit some communities more than others, with the Lutheran, Old Believers and Jewish share declining the most. In total, ~18% of Latvia‘s population is now irreligious.

Note that the Latvian censae do not record religion and the official statistics are based on self-reporting by religious organizations, which may use different systems to record the numbers of their followers. As such the percentages may have a big margin of error and vary among sources.

Lutherans

Lutherans is the largest faith in Latvia, followed by some 25-35% of the total population. Most Lutherans are ethnic Latvians from Central and Western Latvia.

Latvia has its own Lutheran church which consists of three dioceses (Riga, Liepāja and Daugavpils) and owns some 300 church buildings. Their interiors are rather austere (with opulence limited to altars) as the Lutheran religion accentuates faith in God and Jesus without earthly mediums.

Bauska Lutheran chruch
Old Lutheran churches such as this one in Bauska (built 1594) show both the long standing prevalence of the faith in Western Latvia as well as its austerity in decor. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The church was established in 16th century when the German ruling class of Latvia converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism. Latvian peasants had to follow suit.

After 1562 Latvia was partitioned into lands ruled directly by Poland-Lithuania (Latgale) and lands ruled by German vassals, with Lutheran church remaining prevalent only in the latter.

Central square of Cēsis
Central square of Cēsis, a small town that was once the capital of German Livonian Order, is outflanked by a massive Lutheran church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Still as Latvia became unified and free after World War 1, Lutheranism was the majority faith, followed by 55% of Latvia’s inhabitants in 1935. Subsequently Lutheran religion has been greatly hit by Soviet persecution with many churches were closed down and religious life precluded. As a local church it had no foreign support, except for the refugee Latvian Lutherans in the west who established a separate Latvian Lutheran church abroad.

Austere (for the era) Lutheran interior of Dubulti church in Jūrmala
Austere (for the opulent pre-WW1 era when it was built) Lutheran interior of Dubulti church in Jūrmala. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While religious freedom returned after Latvia’s independence (1990) and the church buildings were returned, the Lutheran church has somewhat struggled to maintain its vast network of churches that had been constructed for a much more Lutheran and more religious pre-WW2 Latvia.

Catholics

Roman Catholics are the Latvia’s second largest faith, predominant in eastern Latvia (Latgale) and followed by 20-25% of total population. Its followers are Latgallians and migrants from there, some southern Latvians, as well as Latvia’s Polish and Lithuanian minorities.

The holiest place of Latvia’s Catholics is Aglona and its Basilica of the Assumption where a massive religious festival takes place every 15th of August. The sacred painting of Virgin Mary is venerated there.

Aglona Basilica
Baroque Aglona Basilica. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In general, Catholic church interiors are more popmpous than Lutheran ones as Catholic faith puts more emphasis on religious items and art.

Latvia used to be nearly all-Catholic in late Medieval era when crusading German knights converted it from paganism. Catholicism lost ground after the same German nobility adopted Lutheranism in 16th century (and Latvian peasants followed suit). In Latgale however Catholic Poles and Lithuanians had a direct rule in 16th-18th centuries, funding lavish Baroque churches such as Aglona and helping Catholicism to retain majority.

Roman Catholic church managed to survive the Soviet persecutions better than Lutherans due to its more religious nature and foreign support. The share of Catholics remained constant at ~25%. Therefore, while Lutheran adherents outnumbered Roman Catholics by 2-to-1 in 1935, today their congregations are similar in size according to many statistics.

Russian Orthodox

Russian Orthodox faith is followed by 18%-22% of Latvia’s inhabitants, mostly Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian minorities in the cities and Latgale.

Neo-Byzanthine Russian Orthodox Nativity Cathedral in Riga
Russian Orthodox Nativity Cathedral in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Russian Orthodox churches tend to be domed and have square gold colored interiors. Most of the inscriptions and events there are in Russian as nearly every Latvia’s Orthodox speaks Russian natively.

Russian Orthodox faith first gained importance in Latvia when Latvia was conquered by Russia in the 18th century. Russian settlers, soldiers and officials had churches funded for them by the state as the Orthodox church was considered a key basis of the Empire and its culture.

Russian Orthodox church in Stameriena village built in 1904 when Latvia was still under Russian rule
Russian Orthodox church in Stameriena built in 1904 when Latvia was still under Russian rule. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The numbers of Orthodox adherents swelled together with Soviet colonization of Latvia as many Russophones were sent into Latvian cities. While religious life was shunned at the time and no new churches were built, after independence the Orthodox religion rebounded as many Russophones rediscovered the faith of their forefathers.

New orthodox church constructed post-1990 in Daugavpils Soviet district
New orthodox church constructed in post-1990 Daugavpils Soviet district. All new Orthodox churches generally follow the old styles. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Old Believer

Old Believers are the Latvia’s 4th strongest faith, but with 1,7% as its adherents it falls far behind in numbers beyond the first three. It is followed by ethnic Russian communities whose forefathers arrived to Latgale fleeing persecution in Russia.

Traditional Old Believer churches are small and wooden, located in their own isolated villages. As the centuries passed, many Old Believers moved into cities, with one of the largest Old Believer churches in the world now operating in Riga.

Grebenščikova Old Believer monastery
Grebenščikova Old Believer monastery. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Old Believers follow an older form of Russian Orthodoxy. After Patriarch Nikon reformed that faith in Russia in 1653, following the old rites was banned there. Subsequent persecutions caused many Old Believers to seek refuge in the neighboring countries such as Latvia.

 Old Believer village church now in Riga skansen
Old Believer village church now in Riga skansen. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Every Russian regime tended to view Old Believers as a dangerous sect and their numbers thus went down under Soviet occupation of Latvia (their population share stood at 5,49% in 1935 with 13,85% in Latgale alone).

 typical wooden and modest Old Believer church (1888) in Jēkabpils
A typical wooden and modest Old Believer church (1888) in Jēkabpils where Old Believers have settled as early as 17th century. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Minor Christian faiths

Christian denominations other than the largest four comprises of 1,5%-2,5% of Latvia’s inhabitants (if put together).

Most of these communities are a result of missionary activity in the recent century. They have been greatly damaged during the Soviet occupation when that anti-religious regime found the smallest communities to be the easiest target to destroy.

However after Latvia achieved independence (1990) these “minor” faiths blossomed more than most others as their active and devout priests promoted various “new” (for Latvia) forms of Christ following that had no reputation damage made by Soviet propaganda nor were marred by bureucracy common to larger congregations. The fact that Latvia was always a multi-denominational country may have also easened the advance of new religious minorities.

Kuldīga baptist church
A pre-war baptist church (1897) in Kuldīga town. While their faith is the largest among smaller denominations, baptist churches are still much smaller than those of the main denominations. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Most minor faiths are international, although one large faith known as New Generation was established locally and later gained followers abroad. Most of these faiths are protestant in nature. They usually meet at modest new religious buildings or at rented premises.

A post-1990 Baptist church established within and ordinary building in Daugavpils
A post-1990 Baptist church established within and ordinary building in Daugavpils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The numbers of followers of each minor Christian faith in Latvia (2013):
*Baptists – 7026
*Evangelical – 4956
*Pentecostals – 4736
*Seventh-Day Adventists – 3943
*New Generation – 3020
*New Apostle Church – 1276
*Latter Day Saints (LDS, Mormons) – 838
*Jehovah Witnesses – 721
*Methodists – 502
*Salvation Army – 409
*Reformed – 80
*Anglicans – 55
*Presbyterian – 24
*Christian Science – 24

Dievturība (neo-Paganism)

Dievturība is the a Latvian faith that claims to have reconstructed a pre-Christian pagan faith of Latvia. It is the largest non-Christian faith of Latvia with some ~700 followers who are known as Dievturis (~0,035% of total).

Like other pagans Dievturis rely on tradition rather than scriptures As Latvian paganism was replaced by Christianity in 12th-13th centuries there remained no direct continuation of tradition, meaning that much of what exists now has been reconstructed.

Dievturība was established in 1925 as the newly independent Latvian nation sought to (re)discover its Latvian cultural roots to replace the ones imposed by the centuries of foreign rule. As Christianity was imposed by German conquerors this meant that it had to go as well. However, only a small minority of patriotic Latvians interested in history actually converted to Dievturība and the process never had a state support. Still, the faith continues to grow after independence.

Dievturis believe in a multitude of gods and goddesses, each of them associated with various natural forces and aspects of life. The top trinity are Dievs (primary god after whom the faith itself is named), Māra (“Mother Earth”, female counterpart of Dievs) and Laima (goddess of fertility).

Jewish faith

Jewish faith has a long history in Latvia, but it is now followed by merely 0,025% of total population.

Although Latvia has approximately 6000 ethnic Jews, only 500 are followers of the Jewish faith as most became atheist while under anti-religious Soviet regime.

Riga synagogue
Riga synagogue which (unlike most others) has survived the occupations and was not closed down by the Soviet regime. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Historically the Jewish faith was the strongest in Latgale, as it was the only place where Jews were allowed to freely settle by the Russian Empire which controlled Latvia in 18th-19th centuries. Jews also had a presence in Riga and main towns of other regions, except for Vidzeme.

Kuldīga synagogue
A synagogue in Kuldīga town. Neglected under the Soviet rule Jewish religious heritage is repaired by modern Latvia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In addition to the adoption of atheism the Jewish religious communities also dwindled due to emigration and genocide. Very few synagogues remain open, served by a foreign rabbi. In comparison, 4,79% of Latvia’s total inhabitants followed the Jewish faith in 1935.

Kandava synagogue is now abandoned, like many small town synagogues that were not put to another use
Kandava synagogue is now abandoned, like many small town synagogues that were not put to another use. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Islam

Islam keeps a low-key in Latvia. Latvia has among the lowest population shares of Muslims in Europe (0,05%) and is among the few countries that have no mosques.

Nearly all Latvia’s Muslims (or their forefathers) came as a result of foreign pressure. First Latvia’s Muslims served in the 19th century Russian army or were its prisoners of war.

The bulk of current Muslims came as Soviet settlers during the Soviet occupation. Having came from modern-day Russia, Ukraine, Transcaucasia and Central Asia, they are mostly of Turkic stock (Tatars, Azeris, Uzbeks).

These “Soviet Muslims” are far from religious and usually assimilated into the Russophone community. Many of them became atheist (something promoted by the Soviet regime). While Latvia has some 7000 people of traditionally Muslim communities, merely several hundred still practice Islam.

After Latvian independence some new, more religious Muslims came as students from countries such as Lebanon. There were also a few illegal migrants scaling Latvia’s Eastern border.

The real game-changer however came in 2015 when Latvia gave in to European Union pressure to accept 776 illegal migrants from Middle East and Africa, most of them Muslim. As Latvia increasingly loses its sovereignty to the European Union, its ability to control its own population may grow increasingly limited and more Muslim illegal migrants may be sent from Western Europe to Latvia.

Irreligiousness (Atheism)

Irreligiousness (Atheism) in Latvia is largely a product of Soviet occupation, when it was heavily promoted.

After occupying Latvia, Soviets have closed and demolished numerous churches and houses of worship, while others came under constant surveillance. On the one hand, being religious in Soviet Latvia was unprofitable as it hampered career, on the other hand it was also difficult as religious education was not available and materials were hardly accessible.

Due to this the church attendances decreased and faiths were not properly passed onto new generations. That is especially said about the smallest faiths (Jewish faith, Islam) and Lutheranism.

A part of the Latvia’s irreligious (especially among ethnic minorities) have adopted the doctrine of “Soviet atheism”, which was arguably a fundamentalist faith on itself. While deeply critical of any thought of God, it regarded Marxist-Leninist doctrines as indisputable truth (the non-recognition of which may have even led to one’s forcible treatment in psychiatric wards). Some still follow “Soviet atheism”, some others have replaced it by similar “Western far left atheism”.

While Latvia remained among the most irreligious states of the world, irreligiousness has actually declined after independence with some people refinding their forefather’s faiths while others joining new (mostly Christian) religious communities led by enigmatic preachers whose sermons just became legal.

Kuldīga synagogue
A post-independence billboard calling for rebuilding an Orthodox church in Jūrmala that was demolished by the atheist Soviet regime. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Currently some 15-30% of Latvia’s population is irreligious. It is difficult to draw the line, as many Latvians are “almost irreligious”, believing in just those few tenets of their faith that were passed onto them by their parents.