Boston — March, 1979: The evening meeting of a large church in Irkutsk, Siberia, draws to a close. A visitor from Britain leaves to catch a bus to his hotel. Suddenly he is surrounded by eight exuberant young Russian Christians.
"Would you walk instead?" they ask.
The visitor's nod releases a shower of questions.
"Do you expect freer flow of religious literature, Bibles, radio broadcasts?" queries an anxious young man as the huddled mass drifts through a cold Siberian night. He continues, referring to the 1975 agreement between European nations and the Soviet Union: "We need far more to come out of the Helsinki agreement than better trade relations. It's bad enough in Moscow, where religious literature is scarce, but in Siberia, we're totally starved."
"What was the effect," chimes in another, "of the Helsinki agreement's provision for more religious liberties? Was this discussed last yearm [at the Belgrade meeting that was to evaluate the agreement's implementation]? We saw the original provision in the newspapers, but nothing about Belgrade."m
The questions still linger poignantly on the mind of the Rev. Michael Bourdeaus, director of Keston College Center for the Study of Religion and Communism, in Kent, England.
In fact, their poignancy has intensified since Sept. 8, the day international preparations began in Madrid for a summit of Europeans, Americans, and Russians to size up how well the Helsinki agreement has been carried out.
Mr. Bourdeaux has monitored the struggle for religious liberty in Eastern Europe (including the USSR) for over two decades.
But rarely has he been so confident that Western efforts at monitoring are paying off for the estimated 190 million religious believers behind the Iron Curtain.
They haven't stopped East European churchmen from being imprisoned or inspired communist regimes to bolster religious freedoms, though there are signs that church-state relations have eased in Hungary and East Germany.
But Mr. Bourdeaux does believe that over the past five years the Helsinki agreement, the United States human rights policy, and the election of a Pope from the heartland of communism have increased the self-confidence of East European believers, as well as made the West more concerned.
No doubt the indefatigable Michael Bourdeaux is himself part of the reason.
When he set up Keston College in 1974 to study the conditions of East European believers -- not just Christians, but Jews and Muslims as well -- he was hoping to foster a sympathetic climate in the West.
At first, the college (not a school, but a research center) was only a tiny listening post with half a dozen elite researchers who spoke exotic languages and worked out of an abandoned primary school southeast of London.
Today mr. Bourdeaux's staff has more than doubled and has renovated its quarters. The college now publishers a respected academic journal on religion in communist lands, furnishes churches and press around the world with human-rights news, and has gained considerable recognition among East European believers -- whose often desperate communications continue to filter through to Keston with near technological efficiency.
Whenever issues of religion and communism break into the headlines, Mr. Bourdeaux is sure to be found close by.
As the US Helsinki delegation was preparing for the 1978 Belgrade meeting, he was there to give briefings.
When Soviet authorities exiled Giorgi Vins, a leader of the illegal branch of the Soviet Baptist church, Michael Bourdeaux was standing in the wings when he arrived in America, helping to translate for "brother Giorgi" and easing his sudden transition from a Siberian concentration camp to the Western world.
While striking Polish workers were adding to their recent economic demands the requirement that churches be free from government censorship, Mr. Bourdeaux and his staff were in close contact with Christian leaders in Poland.
And when signers of the Helsinki agreement start their meeting in Madrid on Nov. 11, they will again be equipped with reports on religion in the USSR from Mr. Bourdeaux and his staff.
When I tracked down his affable, globe-trotting Briton, he had just been honored in Boston by American Lithuanians for his service to their relatives living under Soviet rule.
A mild, soft-spoken, ruddy-cheeked baker's son from a remote mining region in southwest England, he is not exactly the type one would expect to be intimately connected with that "East European netherworld" where believers live conv stantly on the knife edge between freedom and arrest, secretly printing Bibles and smuggling messages to the West often from remote regions.
The vital link: his talent for crashing the language barrier.
From schoolboy days he was good at it. He hadm to be -- coming from an area notorious for an accent that turns a simple "How are you?" into something like: "'ow ar'ee gettin' on ar'yah?"
French and German study at school and Russian study during military service in the early 1950s added three languages to his arsenal. A degree from Oxford University in Russian sharpened skills, and two degrees in theology spawned his extraordinary familiarity with religion in communist lands.
Then in 1959 came at Moscow University as part of the first exchange group of British students with the Soviet Union.
"There I got to know Russian Christianity from the inside, saw churches just about beaten to their knees in the Khrushchev period, which was even worse than now. From that point on I felt a calling to serve Russian Christians. I saw that there was a tremendous amount to achieve on behalf of religious liberty in Eastern Europe. But how to do it When I returned, I found a blank wall -- total incomprehension of what Eastern Christianity was all about and what we could do to help."
He spent 10 frustrating years searching for what could be done before the idea for Keston College crystallized.
"I reached the conclusion that you cannot enhance religious liberty in communist countries by a campaign of anti-communist propaganda," he explains, some of the intense passion for his work quickening his voice.
"But you might just achieve it by education of the general Western public. We feel that by making the world aware of the East Europeans' suffering from lack of religious liberty and encouraging a sympathetic background of Western solidarity, there might emerge more broadcasting of religious programs, more financing of literature for those areas of the world, more encouragement for Westerners going there on business to identify with the local cultures and their problems of religious liberty, and to bring them up at negotiating tables. The West has a certain handle through its negotiations with the East.
"Unfortunately, our politicians have tended to believe official propaganda that explains away those in trouble for religious reasons simply as lawbreakers."
As we talk, he identifies so intensely with the East Europeans' cause that I have to remind myself that this is not, in fact, an East European who happens to speak English.
"The East Europeans' problem," he says, "of living under a political system which tries to control religion and make it a mouthpiece for its own system -- it has failed in this but keeps on trying -- that basic injustice is something I have felt deeply and must battle."
The battle has yielded some pathfinding books.
Two probe the condition of Soviet Baptists: "Religious Ferment in Russia" ( 1968) and "Faith on Trial in Russia" (1971). More recently, his "Land of Crosses" (1979) studies the plight of Lithuania's 3 million Catholics who are struggling to retain their cultural identify while looking intensely outward to the broader Christian world.
Michael Bourdeaux has made about 15 journeys to East European countries and the USSR during the past 20 years. And hew now believes that eagerness for increased contact with the West has never been stronger, despite increasing government persecution in various regions.
In fact, to the astonishment and delight of Mr. Bourdeaux leaders of the Christian communities in Romania and Poland recently invited him to visit their countries as their personal guest. work is getting somewhere," he says with a joy he rarely permitted himself in the past, "and that its research into religion in communist countries is not being treated as a mere propaganda ploy. Otherwise I would never have received such invitations. And it says something remarkable about the confidence that has developed among believers in those countries."
Journeying to Romania in August 1978 and to Poland in September 1979, he found a dynamism among believers seldom seen or expected by outsiders.
"I had thought of Romanian Orthodox Christianity as closed and isolated, with its several hundred monasteries hardly effective or able to show their faces under communist rule, perhaps with their historic icon-covered churches reluctantly opening to tourists to earn cash for keeping their work afloat."
Nothing could have been farther from the truth. He found Christian activities widespread, taking diverse forms and operating quite independently of communist control. Many monasteries were opening their doors to hundreds of Romanian visitors, including non-Christians, offering them cheap accomodations in a free and easy atmosphere.
"The extensive pastoral concern -- something I've never seen before in Eastern Europe -- serves a purpose that otherwise would be cut off to East Europeans. In the West, our students are able to travel freely outside their countries. This is prohibited by the Romanian government. Although it's not illegal to be Christian, it is not part of the accepted ideology. So instead, Romanian students travel around their own country, and some of the most interesting places to see are these beautiful old monasteries. Ironically, the system is virtually forcing young people back contact with their Christian heritage."
In Poland, though monasteries were not open as in romania, religious interest was no less alive beneath the staid surface of official government atheism. After visiting Warsaw and the university town of Lublin, he and his wife journeyed to the mountain town of Zakopane. There, they were the guests of five priests who served a community of about 2,000 people.
"Living with these churchmen on the main street of the town, you had the sense you were living right in the center of the community. If you stayed there a week you would probably meet everybody in the community, because everybody would have business in that house at one time or another," he says.
In the year that has passed, reports have been reaching Keston College that oppression of religion and discrimination against believers in hiring and education is increasing.
But in August it was no surprise to Mr. Bourdeaux that the Polish strikers were holding religious services behind the locked gates of their shipyards, and were demanding that the churches have full access to the media.
The Polish government promised further discussion on the subject. If granted , Mr. Bourdeaux explains, it would end censorship of religious groups and could mean regular broadcasts of religious services on television -- something nearly unheard of in communist countries.
"When we were in Zakopane last year, everybody was talking about church and state," adds Mr. Bourdeaux. "At eacn of six church services from 6 a.m. through evening, the bishops read a pronouncement criticizing state censorship of church newspapers. It was read openly in all the churches. The organization is so thorough that tens of thousands of churches heard this on the same day."
When traveling through communist lands, Mr. Bourdeaux is often trailed by undercover policemen, and he has many times visited the homes of dissidents under surveillance, dissidents who wer later imprisoned. But remarkably, he has never been openly threatened with arrest.
Despite the increased number of crackdowns on religious believrs in various communist bloc countries this year, Mr. Bourdeaux says that the believers he has contacted are adamant that their stories be told without hesitation in the West.
Interest in the West also appears to have jumped significantly.
In the US, a branch of Keston College was set up in Wheaton, Ill., in 1978. White it aims to fund itself independently, to date it is not receiving enough financial support from US churches.
Other networks tracking believers' rights have sprung up around the US and Europe, though not as academically oriented as Keston College.
In Elkhart, Ind., exiled Russian Baptist leader Giorgi Vins has established an international network to monitor Soviet Baptists. An interfaith rights-monitoring group was set up in New York several years ago under the name "Freedom of Faith." Another operation is run by Czchoslovakian Pastor Blahaslov Hruby in New York. The US Congress has a Helsinki watchdog committee that keeps track of religious believers' rights. There are a host of others.
Michael Bourdeaux hopes the awakening interest is the beginning of a new Christian ethic.
"Whereas we once tended to think of communist regions of the world as religiously unrelated and cut off from our interests, I would like to think that at last there is something of the Christian ethic coming into play in international thinking, the ethic that we arem our brother's keeper, and we do have -- if not responsibility -- some kind of moral concern for all parts of the world, not just selective ones we have chosen to be indignant about in the past."