Soviet journal on religious dissent may embarrass Kremlin

A Soviet samizdat (underground) journal on religious dissent in the western Ukraine that has recently reached the West could prove to be a source of considerable embarrassment to the Kremlin. Ironically, it could also be a nettlesome factor in the Vatican's strategy regarding the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

The journal, called the Chronicle of the Catholic Church of Ukraine, focuses mainly on the plight of the outlawed Ukrainian Catholic (Uniate) Church in western Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Catholic Church was incorporated into the Russian Orthodox Church by an unsanctioned synod of 1946 in an effort to quell nationalist sentiments in the Ukraine. At the time, virtually the entire hierarchy and clergy of the church was arrested and subsequently killed by the Soviets. The church, with an estimated 5 million adherents, functions underground today, with bishops and priests consecrated clandestinely.

The appearance of the Chronicle, eight issues of which have been smuggled out of the USSR, offers disquieting proof to the Soviets that four decades of vigorous persecution, coupled with the efforts of an elaborate atheist propaganda apparatus, have failed to quash the church or dampen the faith of its followers. The tales of arrests, trials, and acts of civil disobedience outlined in the journal strongly suggest a marked resurgence of the church, particularly in the rural and rugged Transcarpathian region bordering Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland.

Paradoxically, the widespread renaissance of the church, which signed a union with Rome in 1596, may prove somewhat awkward for Pope John Paul II. He is an avowed champion of Roman Catholicism in the Eastern bloc and the man most responsible for emboldening Ukrainian Catholics and other persecuted Christians in Eastern Europe to profess their faith openly.

For decades the Vatican has had to play a delicate balancing act with Moscow, virtually writing off the Uniate Church in the Ukraine in order to secure safeguards for Latin-rite Catholics in Lithuania and Poland. (The Ukrainian Catholic Church, technically part of the Roman Catholic Church, follows the Eastern rites.) The appearance of the Chronicle, and the resilience of the Ukrainian Catholic Church it represents, might force the Vatican to reevaluate this strategy.

The journal itself consists primarily of reports documenting repression against Uniate activists in western Ukraine. First published in January 1984, it was set up in 1982 by former political prisoner Yosyp Terelia to work for the legalization of the Ukrainian Catholic Church and to publicize the plight of its members.

The monthly issues have also included details on the persecution of Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostals, and other Protestant denominations, as well as reports on activities by the KGB (the Soviet secret police), incidents of armed resistance and sabotage, the number of men from Transcarpathia killed in Afghanistan, and the arrest of several Ukrainian Red Army officers for allegedly plotting to assassinate the late Soviet defense minister, Dmitri Ustinov.

Perhaps the most poignant accounts are those describing individual cases of persecution and suffering. There is the case of a man in the village of Dolgoye who was arrested in January 1984, severely beaten, and sentenced to two years in a labor camp for taking part in a traditional Christmas play. In another incident, young carolers in the small village of Lisichevo were attacked and beaten by militiamen.

The Chronicle details worsening conditions in pyschiatric hospitals and labor camps, where men and women sentenced for religious activities are regularly placed in solitary confinement or tortured to get them to renounce their faith.

One labor camp, VL 315/30 in Lvov, is reportedly located on the site of a former Nazi concentration camp where 70,000 Jews and 42,000 Ukrainians, Russians, Frenchmen, Belgians, and Gypsies were murdered. Today, the camp houses 300 Catholics, 29 Baptists, two Pentecostals, 15 Jehovah's Witnesses, five Seventh Day Adventists, and 39 Orthodox believers, according to the Chronicle.

The Chronicle also reports that some 900 Ukrainian Catholics either burned or surrendered their internal passports to protest the persecution of Christianity by the Soviet government. Mr. Terelia is quoted as saying that he expected some 3,000 others to follow suit. In another action, 59 men from Transcarpathia, 18 of them Jehovah's Witnesses, were recently convicted for refusing, on religious grounds, to serve in the military.

Despite a concerted effort by Soviet authorities to eradicate the Uniates, the Chronicle provides evidence of continued vitality. It notes that from early 1981 to the beginning of last year, some 81 priests were secretly ordained in the Transcarpathian region alone, and that young children in the area receive a Christian education at an underground monastery.

The Chronicle appears at a time when the human-rights movement that gained momentum in the 1970s has been all but muted by arrests, deportations, and the exiling of dissidents to the far reaches of the country.

Moreover, the apparent revitalization of the Uniate Church in western Ukraine, historically a region of strong Ukrainian nationalism and deep-rooted anti-Soviet sentiment, must be disconcerting to the Soviets, because of the area's proximity to Poland. The Chronicle contains a letter from Terelia to Lech Walesa, leader of the banned Polish trade union Solidarity, in which he says that the struggle of the Polish nation for freedom ``is the hope which gives us strength for resistance.'' The Ukrainian Catholic Church is legal in Poland, where there is a large Ukrainian minority. Any links between Ukrainian activists and their counterparts in Poland would surely make the Kremlin uneasy.

According to Keston College in London, which monitors religious activity in the communist world, some 50 percent of the members of unregistered Protestant churches in the Soviet Union live in the Ukraine, where they have been active despite official harassment.

Moscow has been trying to improve its image in the West, particularly as arms negotiations get under way. An underground journal depicting the brutal persecution of Christians will do little to enhance the nation's human-rights record. It seems likely that information provided by the Chronicle will be cited by the United States and its NATO allies at a meeting on human rights scheduled for this May in Ottawa.

The writer is associate editor of the Ukrainian Weekly.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Soviet journal on religious dissent may embarrass Kremlin
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today