I FIRST visited Moscow in 1985. At the time I found the level of religious repression appalling. Despite warnings from a dour Soviet Intourist guide, our group of Americans courageously attended Sunday service at a Russian Orthodox church. Inside the cavernous nave, we observed mostly older women praying. A handful of younger worshipers made up the balance of a small congregation. Clearly, exercising freedom of worship was not an effective way to enhance one's life style in Russia.
That same week, we were invited by a Soviet Jew to attend part of a Rosh Hashanah service at the only synagogue in Moscow. The streets, the synagogue, and its vestibule were lined with heavily armed uniformed police backed up by an awesome number of plainclothes KGB secret police. The atmosphere was, to say the least, threatening.
But much has changed in the Soviet Union since that first visit. This January another group of visiting Americans, including me, attended a Roman Catholic mass in the private Central Committee Hotel. At 7 a.m. in his hotel room, the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, former president of Notre Dame University in Indiana, celebrated an ecumenical mass. After the ceremony, Fr. Hesburgh said, ``I'm sure this is the first time a Catholic mass has ever been said in this building!''
Although only six of us attended - Rosalynn Carter, the former First Lady; Landrum R. Bolling, a Quaker; a Protestant member of the British Parliament; myself, a Catholic; and two Dutch Calvinists - we all felt that few events could better demonstrate the Russian spirit of perestroika. A new freedom was typified by that mass in Moscow.
The primary purpose of my visit this time was to participate in the first meeting of the Executive Council of the East-West Conference on Human Rights, known as the De Burght Conference. This international group of 25 men and women is co-chaired by Mrs. Carter and Soviet professor Fyodor Burlatsky, a longtime adviser to President Mikhail Gorbachev. A former president and first lady of France, Val'ery and Anne-Aymone Giscard d'Estaing, and representatives from Poland, Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States, attended this inaugural Moscow gathering.
By the close of the conference, co-chairman Burlatsky and Soviet Procurator General Alexander Sukarev confirmed that more than 1,000 applications to congregate had been received from various denominations and were expected to be approved before year-end. This amazing news will be reported by Mrs. Carter at the next conference, to be hosted by former President Jimmy Carter at the Carter Library in Atlanta this fall. The Atlanta conference agenda is expected to include formulation of human rights guidelines designed to protect ethnic minorities in both the East and the West.
The scope of the changes under way is stunning. Churches and synagogues that have been closed for over a half century are scheduled to be reopened. Having been used as museums or warehouses, they will now be refurbished as houses for worship and religious instruction, an outward indication of the extraordinary steps taken in the USSR on behalf of religious freedom.
After the news conference, I spoke with the abbot of St. Sergius Monastery, a Russian Orthodox seminary. ``My seminary,'' he said, ``is at its capacity of 130 students, and I am elated at the religious freedom and support for church openings being allowed by the government.''
Such is the power of perestroika. Changes in its wake so overwhelm the Soviet bureaucracy and lawmaking bodies that explanations often appear contradictory and incomplete. But the fundamental truths are being exposed. Freedom of religion with fully restored traditional religious practices is today a growing, vibrant presence in the USSR.