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Religion gains in Eastern Europe. Active minority, particularly of young people, is turning to church

By William EchiksonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 5, 1987


In an apartment living room, Gyorgy Bulanyi and 12 faithful read the Bible, receive the sacraments, and discuss why they believe military service in Hungary to be incompatible with the message of Jesus. Hungary's communist rulers oppose Father Bulanyi and his followers. So do conservative state-approved Hungarian Roman Catholic prelates, who find his teachings worrisomely ``Protestant.'' Both are trying, so far without success, to end Bulanyi's services.

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``This atheist state wants to control what we teach,'' Bulanyi complains, ``and the episcopate should not cooperate.''

Across Eastern Europe, controversial churchmen like Bulanyi are giving new life to Christianity. The Catholic Church's role in Poland as the guardian of national aspirations is well documented. But religion also is gaining a harder, more political edge in the five other Soviet-bloc countries.

Unlike in Poland, this renewal does not represent a mass phenomenon. Rather, an active minority is turning - or turning back - to churches that, under Marxist theory, should be on the road to extinction. Young people are gravitating toward the new dynamic forms of religion. In Czechoslovakia, Catholic and Protestant groups have copied Bulanyi in creating informal prayer sessions called ``base communities.'' In Romania, fundamentalist Protestant sects are becoming more active.

``There are at least 20 sects trying to establish themselves'' free of state interference, reports Pastor Gabor Ivanyi, who has been fighting to legalize his Methodist congregation for more than a decade in Budapest. ``These are small communities, but strong and lively ones.''

The mounting interest in religion reflects a search for alternative values to communist orthodoxy. Church officials say the communist state ideology offers few answers to pressing personal questions. Some young East Europeans find refuge in rock music or drugs - both growing phenomena. Others find religion.

``Marxism is just a method,'' explains Tamas Miry of the Hungarian episcopate. ``The church offers salvation.''

Outside of Poland, where the church has carved out a special role as a full-fledged independent counterweight to the communist government, East European churches find it difficult to respond to this spiritual vacuum. They lack independent authority. In Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the Catholic Church represented the pillar of oft-despised Austrian rule during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In orthodox Romania and Bulgaria, the prelates traditionally maintained the official state line.

The patchwork of different Christian faiths undercuts potential church power. Whereas postwar Poland is almost 100 percent Catholic, Protestants represent a majority in East Germany and significant minorities in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. In orthodox-dominated Romania and Bulgaria, both Protestants and Catholics are in the minority.

This weakness helps explain why communists coming to power after World War II were able to place churches under their tutelege. State-run religious affairs offices were established. They had to give approval before a denomination could legally exist or before a bishop or priest could be ordained.

A deal soon became clear. Approved churchmen received financial support from the state. In return, they refrained from challenging the communist order.