Soviets Gain Freedom of Religion Parliamentary Vote Ends Decades of Persecution of Churches and Believers

Article excerpt

THE Soviet Union has closed the door on a long history of religious persecution by passing a bill that guarantees freedom of worship.

The legislation approved yesterday by the Supreme Soviet provides freedom for each individual to choose a religious belief and practice it openly. It establishes the equality of all religions and creeds under Soviet law and provides for the separation of church and state.

"This bill has been won by our people through much suffering," Mikhail Kulakov, chairman of the Seventh-day Adventist Church told the official news agency Tass. "It will end the persecution of people for their religious convictions."

The Soviet parliament has formalized what is already an accomplished fact - the widespread revival and spread of religious belief and organizations in the Soviet Union. Soviet citizens who once hid their beliefs now proudly wear crosses around their necks and bring their children to church for baptism.

Houses of worship that were closed, turned into "museums of atheism," or used as dusty storerooms are being restored. More than 4,000 buildings have been returned in the last two to three years alone, says the office of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, the country's largest faith.

Since Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the church has gained a new status in Soviet life. Religious leaders actively participate in both social and political affairs, including as members of parliament from the local level on up. Patriarch Alexsii II, the recently elected head of the Russian Orthodox Church, is himself a member of the Supreme Soviet.

Politicians, even orthodox Communists, feel compelled to seek audiences with church leaders and to speak respectfully of religious belief. Indeed, government officials are increasingly turning to religious groups for aid in resolving violent ethnic conflicts and social problems such as alcoholism and youth crime.

Representatives of all the major religions actively participated in drafting the legislation, including successfully pressing for changes in a first version offered earlier this year. The law ends criminal persecution of belief and bans the official promotion of atheism, long a foundation of the Communist state. …