By JANICE BROUN
In May, 1972, the deceptive calm of Lithuania was shattered by riots and clashes between Soviet police and Lithuanian youths, following the self immolation of 20-year-old Roman Kalanta.
He was drawn by lot from a group of young Catholics who saw martyrdom on the lines of that of Jan Palach, the Czech Protestant, as the only way of drawing attention to the plight of thvir country, forgotten since it had been forced to become a
so called "republic" of the s After more than 30 years of unceasing oppression, the immediate cause was the bishops' pastoral letter. This condemned a memorandum signed by no fewer than 17,000 Catholics — an amazing feat in a police state — complaining of the drastic fall in morals following compulsory atheist education and Russification, and persecution of their faith.
The bishops were forced by Rugcinis, head of the (inevitably atheist) Council for Religious Affairs, to compose this objectionable document. In every church two observers noted which priests read the whole, part or none of the letter, which the bishops said must replace the sermon. The priests, deliberately caught at short notice, hit back later with a scathing attack on those state appointed bishops. The two bishops regarded by Lithuanians as their true fathers-in-God have been under house arrest for years.
Since 1968 a growing number of petitions and complaints,, first from priests, and later also from layfolk, had exposed the hollowness of the government claim that there was religious freedom. Between 1970 and 1972, three priests spent a year in prison each, merely for examining children on their knowledge of the Catechism before Confirmation, not for teaching it to them.
No catechisms and hardly any missals have been printed since before the Second World War. Feelings ran high; there was also a feeling of being neglected by the Pope, and despondency set in. For a few disturbed weeks Lithuania hit minor headlines.
Outwardly, the government attempted conciliation, Printing 10,000 Bibles sounds generous — but works out at one to every 300 people, and many were exported to Lithuanians abroad. Fundamental policy and methods remain unchanged. The Council for Religious Affairs continues to control all Church appointments, movements of clergy, and entrance to Kaunas Seminary.
It counts on the progressive diminution of the numbers of priests — now about 800, as compared with 1,400 before the war — by allowing only half a dozen ordinations a year.
Meanwhile about 30 priests die or retire; a third are already over 6,0. It drastically limits the printing of religious literature. Priests find it difficult to do more than carry out basic Services.
The composition of every congregation and the pastoral work and sermons of every priest are now systematically checked by atheist onlookers. Great importance is laid on atheist education and ridicule of religion and parents have noted the deteriorating morals of the young.
Intimidation, examination and down-grading of Christian children by fanatically atheist ,teachers give rise to heated complaints by parents. Lithuania is deliberately isolated; hardly anyone is allowed to visit the West, and in 1974 and 1975 Lithuanians abroad are not being allowed there to visit relatives.
The contrast with the flourishing adjacent Polish Catholic Church, which is allowed a considerable measure of freedom, makes Lithuanians feel more bitter.
Nevertheless, there are limitations to the extent to which religious persecution can be used. In a population of about three million, despite the deportation of one of every six Lithuanians after Soviet occupation, and their replacement by Russian and Ukrainian "colonists," 75 per cent are still strongly Catholic. Religion, nationalism and hatred of Communist domination are inextricably entwined. The Church is very much the Church of the people. Parishioners back and protect their priests to the uttermost. It is impossible to use such harsh measures as have been used against Ukrainian Eastern Rite Catholics, driven completely underground, or against scattered, uncompromising Reform Baptists.
Frs Seskevicius, Zdebskis and B.ubnys received only a
year's imprisonment each. Many Baptists have been resentenced to three to seven years, after a few months' freedom, for what we would regard as normal evangelism. Children have been removed from parents — a measure which was practised in
Lithuania at least up to 1958. Had it been used in the later
1960s we would certainly have heard of it in the priests' letters of 1968 and 1969. Church closure is gradual — not on the scale of 10,000 Orthodox churches between 1958 and 1964 in the vastness of the USSR.
The solidarity; daring and initiative of Lithuanian Catholics
has nowhere been better shown than in the production of nine issues of the Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church since autumn 1972, when the excellent samizdat Soviet Human Rights magazine, the Chronicle of Current Events, was suppressed. There are fascinating links between Russian dissidents and proliferating groups seeking adequate religious and national recognition throughout the USSR. The civil rights movement has strong sympathy towards those persecuted for their faith and the Chronicle of Current Events covered attacks on Orthodox and Lithuanian individuals and churches.
Now the Lithuanian Chronicle is even being translated back into Russian. This is a mark of the very deep respect Lithuanians have earned, especially in prison camps where so many nationalities were thrown together. Lithuanian deep religious faith, and compassion for others, shone out. Ruthless measures have been taken to discover and suppress the Chronicle. A sample of every typewriter ribbon was taken and many religious scripts, even pre-war ones, confiscated. Now in prison after gruelling interrogations and awaiting trial are five laymen and laywoman, Petras-Pliura, Povilas Petronis, Virgilius Jaugclis, Juozas Grazas, Jonas Stasaitis and Miss Niole, for whom the Academician Sakharov has appealed.
As they were involved in producing the Chronicle, their sentences Will be very heavy. Nevertheless, there are others who will risk their lives; the Chronicle continues. and demands scrupulous accuracy for all material submitted, I,
Among recent information given are encouraging reports of as many as 2,700 to 4,000 children confirmed at a time. But children attending a school friend's funeral were dragged out of church. Altar boys have been photographed.
Fr Petras Orlikas was sentenced and fined for setting up a court and playing volley ball with rowdy children for whom the local kolkhoz made
no provision. Their discipline had greatly improved. Parents, tired of re§cuing terrified children from police stations, petitioned: "What right have teachers to interfere in ourl churches when our priests can't put a foot inside schools?" A particularly sinister questionnaire circulated to some older pupils was given in full. Children are asked whether they believe in God or in atheist materialism. They are asked about religious practices at home — prayers, sacramen tal wafers at Christmas, making the sign of the cross, the use of icons (this suggests that some of the "colonists" are still Orthodox).
Does a priest visit their home? When was the last time they went to church? Are they forced to go by their parents or do they go voluntarily? Who (relatives, aunts, or clergy?) prepared them for first Communion and Confirmation? Do religious beliefs lead to better morals?
Do they respect religious adults?
How can children honestly answer such questions without Popardising the safety of their families and their priests, or their own scholastic future and careers?
In the USSR, scattered,
deported Catholics are still deprived of official permission to worship. Fr Dumbliauskas, a popular Jesuit, an ambulance driver in Kazakhstan, was arrested for organising a secret convent. arid services at night. reciprocated However,
ve r the Vatican Rcanhutisssnioawn Orthodox initiative of 1969 on the mutual exchange of sacraments. Unfortunately, Orthodox churches arc so thin on the ground that Catholics, even if willing, can rarely make use of them, though what Archbishop Blciom calls "interburial" has gone on for some time, even if only by posting some earth to a church for a burial service.
The Lithuanian Chronicle, in its turn, is looking further afield. It carried news of a Ukrainian petition to Moscow to ask for the reopening of Eastern Rite churches forcibly closed by the pseudo-Synod of Lowy ill 1946.
Sixty-year-old Fr Volodymyr Prokopiv, one of the delegates,. has been incarcerated in Kiev mental hospital — an all too frequent and callous Soviet response to such demands for human rights.
Prokopiv had been working secretly in Lithuania ministering to Ukrainians and Lithuanians. Information from the Ukraine tells of heavy sentences given to a Catholic and two Orthodox priests and several lay printers in Lvov, for producing religious literature — carol sheets included.
The Eastern Rite Catholics are still very strong underground. Matters in Lithuania have not got to that point — yet. In the wider context, this news of persecution is news of hope. Deep denominational and national barriers are being increasingly overcome in the determined, dignified struggle for human rights in the USSR.
When Lithuania was a great state it had an excellent record of religious tolerance, to Jews as well as Christians. Reduced and humiliated as it is, Lithuania may still have a vital role to play.
An article by Mrs Janice Braun in "America" in 1973 won an award from the Lithuanian ,4merican Illinois Medical Society for the best article on Lithuania.