WHILE the world's attention is riveted on the Persian Gulf, we dare not ignore dramatic social and political events in the Soviet Union. The crackdown in the Baltics and the instability of the central government point to President Gorbachev's precarious position and cast doubt on the future of the reform movement he launched. One of the most hopeful signs of glasnost's survival during a trying season of political uncertainty and food shortages has been the expression of religious freedom finally being enjoyed by the Soviet people.
Ever since the 1988 Soviet commemoration of the Christian millennium, tender shoots of religious freedom have broken through the harsh ground of Soviet oppression, blooming gloriously in January's celebration of Christmas in Red Square. Distribution of Christian literature is unabated, and Soviet citizens eagerly view religious films played in state theaters or hear religious teaching presented in schools and Pioneer camps.
Happily, these freedoms have survived the first wave of renewed oppression. Anita Deyneka of the Slavic Gospel Association believes religious believers will not be the first targets of persecution. She likens the current situation to the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, when authorities were overwhelmed with political concerns and left believers alone.
Deyneka notes that the church is providing a source of ``morale and cohesion'' not found anywhere else in Soviet society right now and thus is useful to the state. And Christians are providing vitally needed charity work and social services, as well.
Stating that the ``long-term outlook is precarious,'' however, Deyneka says: ``Inevitably ... if economic and political freedoms are not secure, then religious freedom is not secure either.''
Most experienced Soviet observers agree that if democratization falters and economic reforms fail, there will likely be eventual encroachments on - if not a quick end to - religious freedoms now guaranteed by law. Christian leaders who are involved in building nascent political opposition parties like the Christian Democratic Party could be stifled. One evidence of the reality of this fear was the mid-January suspension of the law ensuring freedom of the press where criticism of the Soviet government is concerned as a ``measure to ensure objectivity.'' Western religious and humanitarian aid to Soviet believers once again could encounter serious state-engineered bottlenecks in distribution.
The co-optation of the church in the Soviet Union - an old Kremlin tactic - also could resurface.
Some ominous voices inside the Soviet Union have already spoken. KGB Director General Vladimir Kryuchkov mentioned in December that the KGB ``had lists of people liable for neutralization, if the need arises.'' And Elena Bonner, Andrei Sakharov's widow, predicted in January that there would again be ``thousands of prisoners of conscience'' in the Soviet Union.
Initially, state wrath would focus on political, not religious leaders. Dr. Kent Hill, author of ``The Puzzle of the Soviet Church'' and director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, states: ``You may see activity against people who are religious figures, but there again it may be primarily for political, not religious, reasons.'' He believes the most vulnerable believers are in republics vying for autonomy.
According to Hill, the hard-line movement is primarily not ``anti-religious,'' but ``anti-breakup of the empire.''
However, over time the instruments of state oppression could again terrorize both pulpit and pew, forcing the church either underground or into compromise with the state. These fears have added a sense of urgency to the work of Western organizations like Bible Literature International, which have only begun to meet the seemingly insatiable demand for religious materials and humanitarian aid.
Christians in Western countries would do well to help meet needs in the Soviet Union while spiritual hunger remains at such an amazing level and the window of opportunity remains as wide open as it is today.
Christians outside the Soviet Union should also remember that the Soviet church faces daunting tasks even without repression: rebuilding seminaries and churches, overcoming decades of anti-religious propaganda, and speaking up on behalf of democracy to guarantee long-term religious freedom. Special attention both in prayer and action must be directed in behalf of people of faith in those republics most ardently demanding independence from Moscow.
The dramatic flowering of religious freedom in the Soviet Union does not justify complacency. Western believers should heed Jesus' warning, ``Do not say, `There are yet four months then comes the harvest.' I tell you, lift up your eyes and see how the fields are already white for harvest.''
The time for reaping is now - because echoes of Soviet oppression heard in the Baltics could eventually foretell a cold winter's chill on that harvest.