US-Soviet ties: why the subject of religion should come up

THE President should raise, at the next summit meeting with Gorbachev, the oppression of religion in the Soviet Union. I do not make that statement easily. During a Foreign Service career focused on Soviet and East European affairs, I believed in and worked for ``d'etente'' - or whatever the word was at the time for more businesslike relations with Moscow - and I opposed ``linkage,'' the usual code word for conditioning progress in arms control on changes in the internal Soviet scene. I believed, and believe, that lessening of tension, progress in arms control, and the benefits of great power cooperation are much more important than making points, however valid, about changes we want to see in the USSR. Indeed, I consider aspersions on Soviet legitimacy - which often emerge in our comments on Soviet internal affairs - to be harmful to our own interests.

Yet I still believe the President should talk with Mikhail Gorbachev about the bad condition of religion in the USSR. Why? Here are some reasons:

First, silence about the depth of the American people's concern about the treatment of believers in the USSR is misleading. Having worked on or attended a number of summits, I know that it has become ritual by now to divide the preparation - the briefing papers and such - into four main areas: arms control, third regions (the Middle East and so on), bilateral matters, and what we call ``human rights.'' Although Jewish emigration and the treatment of dissidents - both closely tied to the treatment of religion - have long been at the center of human-rights presentations, to my knowledge we have not given through our presidents a portrayal of how seriously Americans take the oppression of religion in the USSR. The Soviets quite likely take this silence on religion as a lack of serious concern. And this view could encourage tendencies within the Gorbachev regime not to make things worse for believers.

Second, there is precedent for discussing religious matters with the Soviets. I recall that my first official call at the Soviet Foreign Ministry as a junior diplomat in 1964 was to transmit, at Sen. Jacob Javits's request, concern about the lack of matzohs for Soviet Jews at Passover that spring. I was in the Embassy when we gave temporary refuge to a group of Christians from Siberia, some of whom returned years later and were given an apartment in the Embassy until some were allowed to emigrate. The whole history of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment concerning emigration (a move I personally opposed) is closely tied to American concern about religion in the communist countries. And the Carter human rights policy included vigorous support - although not to my knowledge at the Vienna summit of 1979 - for dissidents in trouble for religious reasons. Precedents, albeit partial, do exist.

Third, the new publicity-conscious Gorbachev team should know in their own self-interest that the harsh treatment given religion alienates many foreigners and hinders that growth of trade and scientific exchange with the West which Moscow seeks. We would like to conclude that Mr. Gorbachev, who released Andrei Sakharov from exile and has pushed reform in many areas, would see the advantage in allowing better conditions for worshippers. Alas, there is no evidence of this so far. Gorbachev's public statements, such as his remarks on religion in Tashkent in November 1986, are along traditional lines that the communist party must keep combatting the influence of religion.

If many Gorbachev steps may be seen as ``liberalizing'' - or at least making more rational - some elements of the Soviet system, he may fear that a relaxation of strictures on religion would be seen as ideological laxity, playing into the hands of opponents. The unhappy precedent is that the last Soviet leader seen as a ``reformer,'' Nikita Khrushchev, while pushing through many internal changes, at the same time was carrying out a vicious assault against the Orthodox Church and the other religious groups of the USSR. We need to be afraid that Gorbachev will do the same.

Scholars have documented the two remarkable features of religion in the USSR today. On the one hand, there is unrelenting control and the raising of obstacles to worship by the regime. On the other hand there is a far-reaching revival of religious belief and practice.

It is well known how hard the state makes it - despite legal guarantees - for churches to operate and for believers to worship without fear. Intrusive government supervision; KGB infiltration; refusal to allow the opening of new churches or the repair of the thousands of old churches; not allowing enough Bibles and hymnals to be printed; making priests report parents who baptize their children; restricting the role of priests; not allowing religious instruction for children - in these and other ways, the state makes the practice of religion difficult. We need to tell the Soviets, at the highest level, that this is objectionable.

As a former diplomat, I know that it is not for us Americans to tell the Russians how to run their country. But as a Christian, I do think my fraternal interest in my fellow-believers behind the Soviet frontier is legitimate. I feel certain millions of American Christians, Jews, Muslims and others feel the same way. If it is within the President's power to focus Soviet attention on our burning interest in this matter, he should make the attempt. I do not see it as placing an obstacle to better US-Soviet relations; I see it as removing one.

Jack Perry, a former ambassador to Bulgaria, is director of the Dean Rusk Program in International Studies and a professor of political science at Davidson College in North Carolina.

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