The Communist government has stepped up its antireligious propaganda while loosening some restrictions on churches.

In September, the Soviet government helped facilitate the four-city preaching mission of evangelist Billy Graham. Last summer, the government provided limited assistance for a National Council of Churches—sponsored tour of more than 250 American Christians.

Those are recent examples of the Communist government’s recognition of religion within its own borders. In a country where atheism and the eventual evaporation of religious belief are government policies, many churches are thriving.

Young people have been turning to the church in large numbers despite stepped-up efforts to propagate atheism in Soviet schools and a media campaign aimed at stemming the religious tide. New churches are opening. Innovative one-on-one evangelism is working. Choirs have membership waiting lists. Churches are crowded during three or four services each Sunday.

Spiritual renewal is under way in some sectors of the Russian Orthodox church, which may claim the loyalty of more than 50 million of the USSR’s 270 million citizens. Orthodox leaders say they hope the movement will grow quietly and gradually. A sudden upsurge, they fear, would ignite extensive countermeasures by the government.

Most Orthodox churches hold services daily. They center on a liturgical observance of Communion. Many younger, educated members—careful not to criticize the liturgy—are asking for more Bible-centered preaching. Priests with a strong preaching ministry generally attract large audiences.

The going is slow among evangelicals, but more churches are opening. In southern Siberia, for example, the All Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (AUCECB) has opened 45 churches in the past five years, according to AUCECB general secretary Alexei Bichkov. Agnostics, intellectuals, scientists, and other university graduates are among those becoming devoted followers of Christ, he says. Estimates of the number of AUCECB constituents, including children and unbaptized adherents, range from 1 million to 3 million. Official statistics are not kept.

The AUCECB was formed by Evangelical Christians and Baptists in 1944 in response to a Stalinist measure permitting churches to function within an organized joint body. A number of Pentecostal and Mennonite congregations joined in subsequent years, but others were not ready for such imposed unity. Those congregations continued to meet without government sanction, often suffering the consequences.

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Evangelical leaders in several Soviet cities said that over the past decade, relationships between the officially recognized churches and the Council of Religious Affairs (CRA) have improved gradually. (The CRA is the government agency that regulates churches.) In addition, the CRA has been permitting the independent registration of congregations opposed to membership in the AUCECB.

Sources say there has been controversy within government circles over how far the authorities should cooperate in activities that boost the church. For now, those citing international-image and foreign-policy considerations have prevailed over Communist party hard-liners who would like to shut down the churches overnight. Observers are quick to point out that the government has not changed its ultimate policies regarding religion. Among other things, they say, as many as 300 Christians are in prison for running afoul of Soviet laws governing religious activities—a marked increase since 1982.

Under a crackdown by Nikita Khrushchev beginning in 1959, AUCECB leaders agreed to harsher restrictions of church activities in order to keep the doors of churches open. This capitulation provoked a split that persists, despite easing of restrictions and attempts at reconciliation by AUCECB leaders. The dissidents, advocating the complete separation of church and state, as well as a strong stand against worldliness and compromise within the church, organized the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. That organization was denied government approval.

Known as Initiative or Reform Baptists, they and members of other unregistered groups carried on their ministries. As a result, their leaders were often jailed, their meetings were broken up, and their activities were suppressed. Still, they flourished, numbering as many as several hundred thousand, including unbaptized children.

In recent years, however, the Reform Baptist movement has weakened and split. With many of its key figures imprisoned or growing old and dying, leadership has fallen on less-experienced shoulders. Georgi Vins, one of the dynamos of the movement, was deported in 1979. Another, Gennadi Kriuchkov, has been in hiding for years, but still manages to direct much of the movement.

After the government expanded its provision for independent registration, some dissident Pentecostals and Reform Baptists (including Vins’s church in Kiev) signed up. Although some later deregistered in objection to certain reporting requirements, independent registration seems to be gaining momentum with an estimated 300 congregations in the fold and numerous applications pending.

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A large number of separatist believers and pastors were among the multitudes of mostly German-speaking Russians who emigrated in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Major quarrels and a split developed among the thousands who settled in West Germany, affecting loyalties of those who remained in the USSR.

In West Germany, the Baptist immigrants had a difficult time adjusting to their new freedoms and especially to the complex, materialistic-oriented culture. The Baptist churches in West Germany were not as “alive” as the ones they left behind, they felt, and the members were not as committed.

Only two of the nearly 30 congregations formed by Soviet immigrants have become officially aligned with the West German Baptist organization. Ten of the congregations, whose leaders have roots in the AUCECB, have decided to pursue only fraternal relations with the West Germans. One of their best-known leaders is Johann Martens, pastor of a large church near Hannover.

Reform Baptists in West Germany organized their own denomination this year, the Evangelical Baptist Brethren Churches. It is closely identified with Vins, now based in Indiana. One of its primary ministries is providing support and Christian literature to Reform Baptists in the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, evangelism is emerging as a prime concern of Soviet evangelicals. During his September visit, Graham voiced the sentiment of many of his Soviet brothers and sisters. Said the evangelist: “[I would] like everyone in the USSR to follow Jesus Christ, to have faith in God.”

EDWARD E. PLOWMANin the Soviet Union

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