Plight of persecuted Soviet Christians finds concerned audience at Madrid conference

Arkady Polishchuk is a graying, bespectacled Russian who came to Madrid to represent the 30,000 or so Christians of different denominations -- Baptists, Pentecostals, Adventists, and others -- whom he says wish to emigrate from the Soviet Union.

The case of these persecuted Soviet Christians was raised during the human-rights debates at the Madrid Conference on European Security and Cooperation. Until Madrid, however, their plight has received far less publicity than the cases of repression against Soviet Jews or Soviet writers and scientists.

Although there are some 3 million Soviet Evangelicals, they are less influential than the other groups. Many, Mr. Polishchuk says, "belong to the lowest level of Soviet society. They are simple village people and workers, and even as children they may be dismissed from high school if they openly profess a Christian faith."

According to the Russian exile, this indirect form of persecution, which makes it almost impossible for a Soviet Christian to obtain a higher education or go to a university, means in turn that Christians have the lowest jobs, the lowest salaries, and live in the worst kind of housing.

A more direct type of persecution is an elaborate system of fines applied to those who attend religious gatherings such as Christian baptisms, weddings, or funerals. "These fines amount to about 20 rubles [$31] each time, the equivalent of about half a month's salary," Mr. Polishchuk says. "And as the fines may be applied many times a year, and these Christians generally have large families, the result is near starvation."

At the most extreme level there are also cases of Christians who have been sentenced to imprisonment, labor camps, psychiatric hospitals, or terms of internal exile. One such case raised by Mr. Polishchuk in Madrid is that of Pastor Nikolai Goretoi, who represents a congregation of about 200 Pentecostals in southern Russia near the Black Sea. Polishchuk says Goretoi "is blind, he has 11 children and 28 grandchildren, and his health has been broken by previous imprisonment in the '60s. But this summer he was sentenced to seven years' hard labor and to five years' internal exile just because he had sent Soviet officials letters requesting permission for himself and for his congregation to emigrate."

Meanwhile two Pentecostal families -- the Vashchenkos and Chymkhalovs -- have now been living in the US Embassy in Moscow for 2 1/2 years for fear of further reprisals after futile attempts to obtain emigration permits.

The debates at the Madrid conference are now moving away from human-rights issues to other issues like disarmament. Mr. Polishchuk, however, is not leaving Spain empty-handed. During the conference he has managed to obtain hundreds of thousands of signatures from Western delegates in support of the 30, 000 persecuted Soviet Christians.

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