Soviet Believers. Political change brightens their outlook

By , Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk and Byelorussia is a graduate of the Moscow Theological Seminary and Academy, and later served as the Russian Orthodox Church's patriarchal exarch in Central and then in Western Europe. He now heads the church's foreign relations department and is a permanent member of the Holy Synod.

A NEW law on freedom of conscience in the Soviet Union has been under discussion for some time now. We clergymen are constantly in dialogue with the Council for Religious Affairs of the USSR Council of Ministers, both officially and unofficially. We hope that this year the Congress of People's Deputies of the USSR, our new supreme legislative body, will adopt the law. From the meeting last April of the patriarch and members of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church with Mikhail Gorbachev, I concluded that many of our problems are correctly understood by our country's leadership. That is why we look hopefully toward the development of future church-state relations.

These relations have seen different times. I will be telling the truth if I say that they are now normal, good relations, and that the state responds to our problems. The existing constitutional law separated the church from the state and provided believers with the possibility of observing religious rites. But as time went on, there appeared subordinate legislation and many different instructions that only aggravated the position of the church.

These instructions are still in force. But the state has come to see that they infringe upon the rights of believers and is gradually abolishing them. For example, formerly parents who wanted to baptize their child had to produce passports. Naturally, this embarrassed many; the church people had to fill in a whole unnecessary page in the registry. This practice, which did not correspond to the letter and the spirit of the law, has now been canceled, and the number of baptized has increased.

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What do we expect from the new legislation? First, it would be fair if the church received the status of a legal entity. The Russian Orthodox Church has its representatives, parishes, dioceses, and exarchates, as well as property, and it exercises judicial acts in more than 30 countries. At home in the Soviet Union we have to ask the state before carrying out any legal operation. We would like to have equal status abroad and at home.

The second thing is the right to perform acts of charity. So long as the 1929 legislation regulating church-state relations is in force, our charity work is, as it were, illegal. Its legitimacy ought to be given legislative force.

I also believe that every believing Soviet citizen should be given the chance of using the mass media, radio and television, for religious purposes. Many believers are kept from taking part in divine services by sickness or being confined to bed. Broadcast services could be a great consolation to them.

I must admit that the subject of religion has been appearing in our mass media of late. But I think that it would be better if a theologian, church historian, or clergyman represented the church. Besides, I think non-religious people who are interested in questions of religion would like to get firsthand information. Every religious community must have the chance of providing objective information about itself to enable people to have a correct picture of what's going on in our society's spiritual life.

Unquestionably, changes are taking place in the lives of believers. For the first time, religious people, including Russian Orthodox clergymen, have been nominated for deputies of the supreme body of state power in the Soviet Union, the new Congress. We even had a discussion in the Holy Synod on how we should treat this fact. As the Russian Orthodox Church has a strong social and peacemaking record, the Holy Synod blessed the nominated clergymen, allowing them to accept this nomination and subsequent election and make their contribution to this work.

But those clergy who stood for election represented not the church, but the social organizations in which they work - the Soviet Peace Committee, which nominated Patriarch Pimen; the Soviet Cultural Foundation, which nominated Metropolitan Pitirim, head of the Moscow Patriarchate's publishing department; and the Fund of Charity and Health, which nominated Metropolitan Alexei of Leningrad and Novgorod.

I think that these individuals, as deputies, will represent not only the interests of the public organization they were nominated by, but also those of a considerable number of believers, and atheists, within our country.

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