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.
``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.
The cooperation often has achieved significant results, particularly in Hungary. Gone is communist propaganda against churchgoing, common in the 1950s. A Hungarian now can study catechism and follow religious courses by correspondence without any fear of retaliation at his workplace. ``You can go to church,'' says Laszlo Pai of the Hungarian Religious Affairs Office, ``and be a good socialist.''
Some East European communists even see religion as a useful weapon in grappling with social problems. At a Budapest hotel in October, communist officials from five Soviet-bloc countries held a much publicized meeting with Catholic officials. The two sides apparently found common ground on fighting the breakdown of family life, divorce, drugs, suicide, alcoholism and juvenile deliquency.
For all these forces bringing communists and Christians together, church-state cooperation remains fragile. In Czechoslovakia, priests are routinely interrogated and jailed. Most bishoprics are vacant because the government insists on imposing prelates unacceptable to the Vatican. A state-supported movement of priests, Pacem in Terris, serves as a kind of fifth column within the church.
When more than 100,000 people converged on the Moravian village of Velehrad in the summer of 1985, the faithful heckled the state envoy and shouted down a Pacem in Terris bishop with cries of ``we want loyal priests.'' In this confrontational atmosphere, a thriving ``underground'' church has sprung up. It holds regular prayer meetings in apartments and turns out at least three illegal mimeographed journals with an estimated circulation of almost 10,000.
Catholics and Protestants struggle with similar problems in Romania. Last winter, this correspondent stood with Baptist preacher Buni Cocar in the rubble of his bulldozed church. Pastor Cocar began building his church after years of unsuccessful attempts to receive a building permit. After the authorities destroyed it, Cocar said he went to Baptist leaders and asked, ``Is this religious freedom?'' The Baptist hierarchy disavowed him. Since then, Cocar has emigrated to the United States.
Bulanyi's case is even more sensitive. It has moved center-stage at a critical moment in Hungarian church-state relations. Hungarian primate Laszlo Lekai, the architect of the compromise and cooperation path, passed on this summer. While the state presses for Bulanyi's excommunication, negotiations have slowed over the appointment of a new cardinal and new bishops.
Bulanyi long has been at odds with the Hungarian regime. During the 1950s, he served eight years in prison. Of his 5,000 or so followers, 10 are in prison for refusing to do their military service.
Bulanyi has just as many problems with his own church hierarchy. The episcopate suspended his right to celebrate mass and denounced him to the Vatican for alleged doctrinal errors. Though the Vatican has censured certain points of Bulanyi's teaching, urging him to remain obedient to his bishops, it has prodded the episcopate to harness the energy of the base community movement.
On the condition that they avoid politics, the episcopate recently approved the creation of some base communities. It now is possible to see young people gather ``to give their witness,'' explaining how they have found God.
So whatever the outcome of his personal battle, Bulanyi's fight to establish a more assertive Catholicism behind the Iron Curtain will continue.