Billy Graham invited to make preaching tour in USSR

The final touches are being put in place for an extraordinary event - a religious crusade in the Soviet Union by American evangelist Billy Graham. For two weeks starting in mid-September, the Rev. Dr. Graham will reportedly preach in four or five Soviet cities.

(''Certainly plans seem to be progressing very well,'' although Dr. Graham has not accepted the invitation, says John Akers, special assistant to Dr. Graham in Graham's Minneapolis headquarters. He adds that a decision might be reached by ''the first of this next week.''

(The invitation came from the All Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists and the Russian Orthodox church to preach in Moscow, Leningrad, the Estonian capital Tallinn, and the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, Mr. Akers says.)

The most unusual aspect of the tour is that it's taking place in a country whose ruling Communist Party is dedicated to the disappearance of religion altogether.

Inevitably, the Graham tour would rekindle the continuing controversy over freedom of religion - or the lack of it - in the Soviet Union.

The Rev. Dr. Graham himself is no stranger to the subject. During a 1982 visit to a religious conference here, he provoked a storm of criticism by cautioning against saying there is no religious freedom here.

On May 12, 1982, at the end of his visit to the Soviet Union, he said: ''Saturday night I went to three Orthodox churches that were jammed to capacity. You would never get that in Charlotte, North Carolina (where Dr. Graham resides).''

''And on Sunday morning,'' he added, ''the same was true. And it would seem to me that the churches that are open, of which there are thousands, seem to have liberty to worship services.''

Such comments pleased his Soviet hosts immensely.

''We tried to use this visit of Graham to prove that there is freedom of religion in the Soviet Union,'' says Yuri Smirnov, head of international information for the government's Council for Religious Affairs - the body that regulates religious activity in this country.

Other visitors here have come away with similar conclusions. Earlier this year, leaders of a visiting group of 206 churchmen from the United States seemed to echo Graham's words. John Lindner, program director of the American-Soviet church relations office of the National Council of Churches, said after the visit, ''We discovered vital religious communities wherever we went, from Tallinn to Tashkent.''

But even some members within the group privately criticized that conclusion, arguing that it was the result of a carefully screened, officially sanctioned view of religion in the USSR - a view that ignored the severe restrictions and even persecution that religious believers face.

Last year, a report by Keston College - a British institution that monitors religious freedom under communist regimes - documented at least 307 cases of imprisonment of Christians, often in so-called ''strict regime'' labor camps. This figure, concluded the authors, represented only the tip of the iceberg.

Is there, then, religious freedom in the Soviet Union?

That question is inextricable from another: What is the nature of freedom?

The answer here, predictably, is quite different than in the West.

''Some people call freedom of religion shouting from the rooftops. We don't like that. ... It's not good,'' says Mr. Smirnov. ''There are limits (on religion), but it's unfair to say that religion is suppressed.''

Indeed, there are limits.

Even now, the Soviet government is in the process of codifying them. Taken together, they provide a framework under which churches and religious believers here must operate, or face the full force of state authority.

For example, every church must be registered with the government, which has ultimate power to grant it recognition and allow it to hold services. Small, informal group meetings in private homes are strictly forbidden.

Any sort of organized religious instruction for children, such as Sunday schools, is strictly proscribed. Baptisms are allowed, but have no legal status.

Weddings in churches are allowed, but have no legal status. In order to be officially recognized, a marriage must be performed in a state-run ''wedding palace'' or other public building.

In fact, even the churches themselves have been nationalized. Congregations are only allowed to use them, says Mr. Smirnov, in exchange for performing maintenance and renovation.

Churches may not engage in ''social activities'' which rules out such things as fund-raising bake sales, church picnics, or maintaining homs for the elderly. Such things, says Mr. Smirnov, are the legitimate domain of the state, not the church.

''If the churches stick to religion as such, we don't mind,'' he adds.

''The state does not interfere in the canonical affairs of the church.''

There are some 20,000 houses of worship here, and the number applying for official recognition by the state is growing. And over the past year, there have been periodic reports in the official press criticizing the persistence of religious beliefs.

On at least two occassions during the past year, Pravda, the official Communist Party newspaper, has fretted over the problem, and called for vigorous efforts to combat religious influences.

''Clearly what is needed now,'' Pravda said, ''is an improvement in the methods of atheistic education and a more energetic counterpropaganda.''

Officially, only 10 to 12 percent of the Soviet population is counted as religious believers. Yet, there are indications - impressionistic, anecdotal, yet nevertheless persistent - that interest in religion in this country may even be growing.

''It is growing,'' says one young man, who baptized his child in the Russian Orthodox church, ''because people want something to believe in.''

''We used to think,'' Smirnov says, ''in a primitive way, after the revolution, that the old people would die and the churches would disappear.''

''But,'' he concedes, ''that hasn't happened.''

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