Most people in the free world have to take no greater risks to practice their religion than finding a parking place near church on Sunday. Their hearts must go out to the hardy band of Pentecostalists in the Soviet Union who are taking yet another serious risk in a long campaign to practice their religion. After almost five years of refuge in the United States Embassy in Moscow they have left for their home in Siberia. They are counting on the Soviet government to come through on a possibly implied but certainly not declared commitment to let them emigrate after application from their faraway home region.
Members of the group had wound up in labor camps after a previous episode at the embassy.
During their recent lengthy asylum they had rejected encouragement by embassy staff to test the Kremlin's emigration policy at what seemed more propitious times, such as the period of eased East-West tensions at the signing of SALT II.
Now, with relations at a low ebb, there appears little international incentive for Soviet leader Andropov to be any more lenient than his predecessor.
Yet one of the Pentecostalists - who did return home after a hunger strike and hospital stay - has been allowed to emigrate. This has given hope to the others, though the official position continues to be put coolly: that their applications would be considered fairly if they returned home but not considered at all unless they did.
Attempts at emigration have become the Pentecostalists' resort since there seems little chance of their religion gaining the legal if not comfortable status of various other denominations under a system that rejects belief in God. They claim the right to refuse military service, for example, which is obviously carrying religion too far for the communists.
From Moscow's point of view there would be a gain in world opinion if it were to behave like a superpower and be big enough to let people leave under the Helsinki accords if nothing else. But, since there are thousands of Pentecostalists lining up, it will probably decide according to other reasons.
Sometimes a decision seems based on favoring quiet applicants so that there is no public fuss - though no Pentecostalists are known to have been released on this basis. Sometimes the authorities appear to reason that it is better to get rid of troublemakers than punish them further by refusing emigration.
Another version of the selection process is that the Kremlin wants to separate the sheep from the goats - to determine which applicants are simply using their religion as an excuse to get out of the country and which are acting on genuine convictions.
There is nothing to do at the moment but wait and see if Moscow has enough of the humanity it preaches to let any more of its people go. One thing is sure. From the record of the Pentecostalists who have now forgone haven in the US Embassy, they are not simply seeking a soft pew in the West. They will be taking more risks to practice their religion if their present gambit fails.