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Embassy Gets Letters : Soviets Urged to Lift Bars on Religion

December 08, 1987|ERIC LICHTBLAU | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — More than 260 congressmen have written to Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev this week, urging him to break down the "obstacles" toward religious freedom that lie in the path of Soviet Christians and Jews alike.

The written appeal--accompanied by 22 pages of congressional signatures--is perhaps the heftiest of the thousands of letters addressed to Gorbachev that have deluged the Soviet Embassy. Letters for the Kremlin chief also have come from schoolchildren, other public officials, peace and human rights activists and others around the country.

"There's been a tremendous increase in the mail," said embassy official Yevgeny Afanasyev--so much so that the Soviet mission has assigned its staff additional night shifts to handle the influx. "The letters are still coming in at this moment," waiting to be reviewed by embassy officials, Afanasyev said.

On the U.S. side, spokesman Ben Jarratt said that mail and phone calls to the White House have increased slightly, but no more than when other issues of national importance have arisen. "It's been fairly routine--no flood, nothing dramatic," he said.

'Peace and Disarmament'

The bulk of the correspondence to the Soviet Embassy has dealt with "peace and disarmament," Afanasyev said.

Among the letter writers, it remains to be seen whether there is another Samantha Smith, the late schoolchild whose letter to then-Soviet leader Yuri V. Andropov about her concerns on nuclear war resulted in an invitation to visit Russia in 1983. But Afanasyev said "the most influential . . . the most essential" of the lot will be forwarded to the attention of Gorbachev himself.

One correspondent, the Rev. Jarvis McMillan of Baltimore, said he is "confident we'll get a response" to the letter that his Baltimore Presbyterian Church U.S.A. delivered--along with symbolic doves--to Gorbachev and Reagan, expressing "heartfelt emotion and solid support" for their "wisdom" in moving toward an intermediate-range nuclear missile pact.

The congressional letter to Gorbachev, signed by 264 House members, appealed for reform and cited Soviet violations of 17 international standards of religious expression, including restrictions on religious education and displays, as well as discrimination and imprisonment of practitioners.

Plight of Christians

At a press conference, congressmen and co-sponsors from the Coalition for Solidarity with Christians in the U.S.S.R. drew particular attention to Christians who have been imprisoned or discriminated against for their religious beliefs, a group that some suggested has gone overlooked in light of recent publicity on the plight of Soviet Jews.

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