The Short Arm of Glasnost

NEW religious freedom made possible by glasnost and perestroika for some churches in the Soviet Union may give the mistaken impression that these liberties now extend to religious groups everywhere. Unfortunately, the more things change for large churches in urban centers like Moscow and Leningrad, the more they stay the same for religious minorities in the hinterlands. For thousands of Pentecostal Christians living in remoter regions like the Ukraine, the Baltic republics, and Siberia, years of repression continue to take their toll. The emigration movement now under way (which involves Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists as well) could become the largest exodus of Christian believers under Soviet rule. More than 50,000 Soviet Pentecostals have already expressed a desire to emigrate.

Testimonies of individual Pentecostal 'emigr'es given to the US Immigration and Naturalization Service in Rome indicate that persecution against this group continues as it has since the time of Stalin. In 1929, the legislation On Religious Associations was first adopted. This law defines a religious society, outlining the conditions under which such a society can be legal, or recognized by the Soviet state. All unregistered religious organizations were officially declared illegal.

Pentecostals resisted registering then as they have to this day, finding the conditions of doing so tantamount to spiritual suicide. ``As a registered church, children would not be allowed to come,'' Vladimir Sidorov, a former resident of Estonia, told officials in Rome. ``No one can be baptized under age 25. ... The government would also control our offerings and [we] would not be allowed to talk about eternal life. We cannot do this and practice our faith as Pentecostals.''

That registration is not an acceptable alternative is echoed by Boris Perchatkin, founder of the Slavic Refugee Relief Committee in Westfield, Mass., who maintains its purpose ``is to slowly choke the church.''

Unregistered church members in the large Pentecostal community of Nakhodka in the Soviet Far East all relate stories of past persecution that range from fines and denial of higher education to beatings by the KGB and imprisonment in labor camps.

More recent developments in Nakhodka bode no improvement for the future. In 1987 the Nakhodka City Council issued the ominous ``Measures to Prevent Religious Activity by 1990.'' This document is based on instructions provided by the Council on Religious Affairs in Moscow, headed by Konstantin Kharchev, a leading spokesman for perestroika. Its design is to force registration of Pentecostals by consistently harassing and persecuting the children of Pentecostal families.

Pentecostals are eager to leave while glasnost is relaxing emigration policy, providing a window of opportunity which, if history is any guide, may soon close. Soviet believers know that their government's treatment of Christians is unpredictable. Times of ``openness'' have historically been followed by periods of severe persecution.

During World War II, Pentecostal and other Soviet churches were allowed a respite from Stalin's antireligious campaign begun in 1928 when the cooperation of the church was needed in fighting the German invasion. The reprieve proved to be short lived when in 1960 Nikita Khrushchev began a new antireligious campaign that singled out Pentecostals as a prime target.

Mikhail Gorbachev is ``not a friend of the churches'' despite his reform policies, Erwin Damson, managing director of Light in the East, the oldest Protestant ministry in Germany working in the communist-bloc countries, recently told the West German Information Service of the German Evangelical Alliance. Mr. Damson maintains that Mr. Gorbachev needs the church in order to carry out his policies; moral and ethical standards must be raised so that Gorbachev's policies will work. It is interesting in this light that Russian Orthodox clergymen have been nominated for high office in the new Soviet Congress. Perhaps it is not so much that religious freedom is growing, but that the Orthodox Church's link with national identity is being exploited; the extension of glasnost to ``the sects'' might hamper a growing sense of nationalism.

It is too soon, however, to evaluate what actual progress toward freedom of religion has been made in the USSR, and it would be cynical to dismiss signs of hope entirely. But the skepticism of Pentecostals at this juncture is not unwarranted. Recent Pentecostal arrivals in Rome report that local Soviet officials tell them quite openly that when the political climate changes, Pentecostals can expect persecution to be as severe as ever.

``The clerks that processed us out of the Soviet Union told us if it were up to them, they would `squash us or send us up north,''' said Pyotr Fortuna, a former Nakhodka resident. ``They told us to go now while the going is good.''

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