World News

Lithuania holds first gay march amid protests

VILNIUS (Reuters) - About 500 people marched in Lithuania’s capital Saturday in the country’s first gay pride march, while police kept about 1,000 anti-gay protesters at bay, at one point firing tear gas to keep them back.

The main march itself took place without incident, but riot police used tear gas later when anti-gay protesters tried to break through barriers into the area where the parade took place, where participants were still milling around.

About 600 police, some with dogs and others on horseback, ringed the event, which was held along the bank of a river.

“Today we are marching for freedom, today we are marching for equality, today we are marching for Europe ... that we would never accept homophobia taking over our streets,” Swedish Minister for European Affairs Birgitta Ohlsson told the marchers.

She was the highest profile foreign attendee. Some foreign ambassadors, including those of France and Britain, also took part, as well as five members of the European Parliament.

Only two Lithuanian lawmakers attended.

Opinion polls have shown that more than two-thirds of Lithuanians are opposed to the gay pride event in the ex-Soviet republic of 3.4 million people, where the Roman Catholic church, which regards homosexuality as a grave sin, has a dominant role.

“Homophobia is a big problem in Lithuania ... I think this is because homophobia here is institutionalized,” Roma Pinkeviciene, 50, a secondary school teacher, told Reuters.

She took part in the march to support human rights.

Some protesters tried to cross the river in a boat, but were turned back by police. Police said 19 anti-gay protest participants were detained after trying to break through barriers and for throwing gas grenades.

The parade was the second joint in the Baltic states, which included gay activists from Latvia and Estonia, as well as other EU countries, and a delegation from Amnesty International.

The Baltic pride event was held for the first time in Latvia last year, and is planned in Estonia in 2011. Latvia and Estonia had separate gay pride events before.

A Lithuanian court initially banned the parade last week, but that was overturned on appeal and the march went ahead.

For some the parade became an emotional moment.

“I just called my mother and told her I am gay. She was shocked, initially, of course, but I hope she will get over it,” Artur, 17, who declined to give his family name, told Reuters.

Reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis; editing by Myra MacDonald