by PETER NOLAN
The increasingly sophisticated methods used by Communists to persecute all religions in Russia, China iind Eastern Europe will become better known after a new ecumenical college is opened in Kent this year.
Premises for the college are about to be purchased in Keston and £100,000 has already been raised to support the project. Its foundation is part of the growing work of the Centre for the Study of Religion and Cornmunism, started three years ago by the Rev. Michael Bourdeaux, an Anglican minister who has studied at Moscow University.
Mr. Bourdeaux told me religion was very much alive under Communism and the USSR considers it so threatening that a special department of the K.G.B. or secret service, the Council on Religious Aff..irs, has been set up to combat it. "The gpiritual strength of Christians in Communist countries has lessons to teach all of us," he said.
The centre. with a permanent staff of three and a number of part time helpers, operates from a large house in Chislehurst, Kent. Its aim is to carry out objective study of religion under Communism, providing information to Churches, universities and the media.
The accuracy of the information smuggled out From all over Eastern Europe and published by the centre in its magazine, Religion in Communist Lands has never been questioned. Mr. Bourdeaux has however been attacked in several Soviet journals. An article in Science and Religion, recently reprinted in his book Faith on Trial in Russia said his "scribbles reflect a definite direction in the arsenal of imperialist propaganda, poisoning the minds of people in the West with the venom of antiSoviet ideas.
Mr. Bourdeaux said documents and information reaching the centre in growing numbers reflect the fact that a spiritual rebirth seems to be occurring in church life in many Communist countries. In 1966 the first public demonstration to be held in Moscow in 50 years was organised by Russian Baptists who came from as far away as Vladivostok, a journey of 4,000 miles.
1 he 500 demonstrators were petitioning Mr.
Brezhnev, the Soviet Premier. for recognition of their council of Churches. They remained outside the
government headquarters building until hundreds of policemen baton charged them and forced them into buses, which took them to prison. The demonstration received very little Western press coverage but Mr. Bourdeaux sees it as further evidence of the strength of religious belief in Russia.
Baptists have formed 'a Council of Prisoners' Relatives' and recently publicised the death of one young believer, Vanya Moiseycv, a 20-year-old from Moldavia, who spoke
about his religious beliefs to his fellow soldiers. In July 1972 he was tortured and drowned in the Black Sea, while serving in the Crimea. His death was Confirmed by the Soviet government, but not how it occurred.
Officially, the Soviet Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, hut permission has to be sought to meet outside existing churches and in practice freedom to hold religious services is all that is permitted. Religion is never openly persecuted, but believers and priests are accused of breaking the law. For example, a five year prison sentence can be imposed on anyone encouraging religious activities "harmful to the health of citizens or encroaching upon the person or the rights of individuals."
Definition of "harmful" is decided on by the prosecutor and the law is typical of several passed in 1961. The teaching of religion is forbidden and even parents passing on the faith to their children may be attacked. An article arguing religious families should be broken up is quoted in the 1973 edition of the Minority Rights Group report on religion in the Soviet Union, prepared by Mr. Bourdeaux's centre. The Soviet writer said: "We cannot and must not remain indifferent to the fate of children, upon whom fanatical religious parents are carrying out what is virtually spiritual rape."
The report also noted "the nationwide enforced and illegal closure of churches during the latter part of Mr. Kruschev's regime." Between 1960 and 1964 10,000 churches belonging to the Russian Orthodox faith were closed. about half the total. Only about 500 have since been permitted to reopen.
The largest group of Catholics in the U.S.S.R. are in Lithuania. Fr. Antanas Seskevicius was sentenced to a year's imprisonment there in 1970 for teaching the catechism to 300 children, showing the faith to be very much alive. A report of his trial smuggled out said he told his prosecutors: "1 am being tried for fulfilling my rightful
duties if the courts do not judge us priests now, then our nation will judge us. And finally will come the hour for the true judgment by the Supreme Being. May God help us priests to fear this more than your judgment. s
Documents reaching the Centre from Lithuania report a petition for more religious liberty to be sent to the Soviet Premier in 1971 gained 17.000 signatures before the K.G.B. stepped ill. It stated: "What we want is not pretty words in the press and on the radio, but serious governmental efforts that would help us Catholics to feel citizens of the Soviet Union with equal rights."
Before annexation by the Soviets in 1940 Lithuania had 12 bishops and 1,614 priests. Now only two bishops are able to serve the people and about 800 priests. Seminary closures have meant that only five or six new priests are ordained each year. Theological students are vetted by the government before being allowed to study, the better candidates being rejected. Catholics are not allowed to form representative bodies in the U.S.S.R. and no religious association is a person at law, making them unable to defend themselves or their rights.
The chairman of the Centre for the Study of Religion and Communism is Sir John Lawrence and Cardinal Koenig, Archbishdp of Vienna, is a patron. Fr. Martin Gosling, a Premonstratensian from Storrington, Sussex, British director of the international Catholic organisation helping Catholics under Communism, 'Aid to the Church in Need,' is a member of the Centre's Council of Management. His organisation gives the biggest single annual grant of £2,500 to the centre.
Mr. Bourdeaux's interest in religion under Communism began when he took up the study of Russian while doing his national service. A Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Chatham House, his fifth hook on the subject, One Man's Witness, is to be published by Sheldon Press later this year.
He hopes to meet Archbishop Casaroli, the Vatican 'Foreign Minister' when he visits Rome to address an American Catholic organisation, Consortium meeting there in March. The opening of the College at Kesion will be for him the culmination of 20 years work.
The college will,. expand the work of the centre and hopes to attract divinity students, especially those with a knowledge of East European languages. He is hopeful that trusts and denominations will endow studentships and contribute towards costs. The work of
the college, shedding light on the conditions endured by believers under Communism, will be unique.
"The Soviet believer has begun to implore publicity in countries other than his own and when this has been granted it appears to have helped — or at least not to have hindered — the situation," he said.
The effectiveness of the recent Jewish campaign to permit Russian Jews to emigrate to Israel clearly demonstrates that we in the West can help give "the Church of' Silence" a voice. And reports from every Communist country reaching the centre show Christians being persecuted there are asking for that help.