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How They Keep the Faith Behind the Iron Curtain

April 25, 1985|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

They came together, Christians and Jews, to state the plight of the religious faithful living behind the Iron Curtain. They told of incarcerations in mental hospitals, of disappearances, of destruction of houses of worship, of open-end sentences in labor camps.

Moderator Alan Mittleman of the sponsoring National Interreligious Task Force on Soviet Jewry noted that the hearing last week at Loyola Marymount University took place on Holocaust Remembrance Day, an appropriate occasion, he said, on which to be reminded of the threat posed by totalitarian societies.

It also took place during a time of heightened optimism for a thaw between the United States and the Soviet Union and its new leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

But if any of the participants in this hearing on religious freedom, titled "Culture and Community: The Struggle for Religious Liberty in the U.S.S.R.," had been harboring hopes for detente, those were dashed quickly by speaker Yuri Yarim-Agaev, a Soviet physicist exiled in 1980 for dissident activities and now working in the Bay Area.

"Nothing has changed in the area of human rights," Yarim-Agaev said. "Nothing has improved since Gorbachev came to power." He spoke of "new waves of repression" against Muslims and Jews, of clampdowns on communication with foreigners, of "direct torture on political prisoners."

The hearing, held in cooperation with the American Jewish Committee, Los Angeles Chapter, and the Los Angeles Interreligious Coalition on Soviet Jewry, was to gather testimony for submission next month in Ottawa to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. The commission, mandated by the Helsinki Accords in 1975, monitors compliance by the Soviet Union and other participating nations with the agreements they signed on human rights and freedoms.

Presenters at Loyola Marymount included, in addition to Yarim-Agaev, Kent R. Hill, associate professor of history at Seattle Pacific University and a participant in emigration arrangements for the "Siberian Seven," Pentecostals who spent almost five years in de facto asylum in the American Embassy in Moscow before being permitted to emigrate to the West in mid-1983; Edward Robin of Los Angeles, vice chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry; Ginte Damusis, associate director, Lithuanian Catholic Religious Aid, Brooklyn, N.Y., and Olga Stacevich, the Russian-born editor of The Samizdat Bulletin, San Mateo.

Hill touched off a provocative debate when he said the National Council of Churches has done a disservice to Christians in the Soviet Union by "buying the Soviet line" as handed them by official Soviet church leaders, that things will only get worse if protests are made, whereas the truth, Hill said, is that speaking out protects the dissidents.

Remarks Spark Anger

His remarks angered the Rev. Eugene Boutilier, executive director of the Southern California Ecumenical Council and a member of the panel of questioners. Boutilier said, "I do not agree at all" if the inference is that the council does not consider religious oppression a serious concern, and, he added, "it's slanderous to say so."

Later, in an interview, both men explained their positions. "He missed my point," Hill said, which was that "the National Council of Churches has failed to support effectively Christians behind the Iron Curtain. They've allowed their relationship with registered church leaders to silence them. They mistakenly believe that they would hurt Russian Christians if they spoke up on their behalf."

Hill said that while some of the registered Soviet leaders are "dedicated Christians who've made a tactical decision to accommodate" and others "are, in fact, working for the KGB," both speak in the same voice. One of the former, Hill said, had told him, "You don't do us any favor when you don't ask hard questions."

Boutilier said he did not question that "there are severe, awful, restrictive anti-religious activities" in the Soviet Union, but, he said, "you have to find folks with whom to work and listen to them. . . . I'm convinced an important, valid strategy is to develop a working relationship with the existing above-ground religious institutions, help them get concessions, help them grow and survive."

But, Boutilier said, "When (Hill) accuses the whole ecumenical leadership worldwide of being Communist dupes. . . ."

What is needed, he said, is to "walk a tight line," putting the pressure on without embarrassing anyone--neither collaborating completely nor risking the chance that the church could be "wiped out."

During the three-hour hearing, part of moderator Mittleman's goal of "increased sensitivity (as Christians and Jews) to each others' concerns" appeared to be achieved.

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