Christianity in the Soviet Union

by Ivan Kauffman

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Most North Americans know that Christians in the Soviet Union have been heavily persecuted for the past 70 years, but few are aware that millions of believers survived and that today tens of thousands of churches are open for worship in the Soviet Union each Sunday, including an estimated 1200 Roman Catholic parishes.

Before the 1917 Communist Revolution, the vast majority of the Russian people were Orthodox Christians. Today, an estimated 50 to 75 million are still members. The Russian Orthodox Church recently constructed a large new headquarters in Moscow to mark the millenium of Christianity in their nation. After World War II, several predominantly Catholic areas along the Soviet Union’s western borders were annexed, thus adding some 10 million Catholics to the Soviet population. Two Roman Catholic seminaries are now open in the Soviet Republic of Lithuania, and about 50 new priests are being ordained annually. There is also an active Baptist Church in the Soviet Union, as well as several other Protestant denominations.

Since Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1983, the Soviet Government has liberalized its treatment of religions. The greatest changes have taken place in the last year when Christianity celebrated its 1000 years in Russia. The Soviet Government not only permitted the Russian Orthodox Church to observe the anniversary publicly, but President Mikhail Gorbachev invited Orthodox leaders to the Kremlin. Their historic meeting was publicized in the Soviet press and on Soviet television.

Pope John Paul II sent a high-ranking delegation to the anniversary celebrations, led by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Cassaroli and John Cardinal O’Connor, Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s president and archbishop of New York. Cardinal Cassaroli also met privately with President Gorbachev in the Kremlin.

The Ukrainians are members of an Eastern Rite Catholic Church which has an estimated 5 million members in the Soviet Union. It was forced underground by Stalin after the Second World War. In Lithuania, a small republic on the border of Poland which is almost completely Catholic, the Government released 77-year old Archbishop Julijonas Steponavicius, who had been under house arrest for 27 years. The cathedral in the capital city of Vilnius, which had been used as an art gallery and concert hall for the past 38 years, was restored to his control.

Bishop Paul Baltakis, O.F.M., Brooklyn-based bishop for the Spiritual Assistance of Lithuanian Catholics outside Lithuania, visited Lithuania last April. “The Government,” said Bishop Baltakis, “can no longer cope with its social problems, such as drug addiction, care for the handicapped, alcoholism and the breakdown of the family. It now recognizes it needs the assistance of the church.”

In 1988, the Government allowed 120,00 copies of a Catholic edition of the Bible in Russian to be imported. The bibles, funded in part by Catholic Near East, arrived in Riga February 16, 1989, and were unloaded from the ship by seminary students, many of whom were overwhelmed by the gift.

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Tags: Christianity Russian Orthodox Church Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Communism/Communist Soviet Union