Remarks at a White House Briefing on Religious Freedom in the Soviet Union

 

May 3, 1988

 

Thank you all very much, and welcome to the East Room of the White House. This room has seen many important people -- Presidents, diplomats, world statesmen -- and none more important, none of greater faith and moral courage, than these four men that we are honored to have with us: Father Shibayev, Reverend Matveiuk, Mykola Rudenko, and Iosif Begun. I promise that the witness of faith that you have brought here today will not be confined within these four walls, or forgotten when this meeting is ended. I will carry it in my heart when I travel to the Soviet Union at the end of this month. And I will say that the most fitting way to mark the millennium of Christianity in Kiev Rus would be granting the right of all the peoples and all the creeds of the Soviet Union to worship their God, in their own way.

 

You have, of course, been hearing this afternoon about the first signs of progress. The presence of these four men here today is testimony to the fact that our witness here in the West can have an impact. Some Soviet dissidents have been allowed to emigrate. Some churches are allowed to organize and file for recognition, and recently the Soviets have said they will allow a printing of language Bibles. These are encouraging signs, and we welcome them. What we hope for ultimately is a willingness to see continued change in the spirit of glasnost, when it comes to matters of religion. Perhaps the process is beginning. We noted that General Secretary Gorbachev said recently, and I'll quote: ``Mistakes made with regard to the church and believers in the 1930's and the years that followed are being rectified.'' Well, we sincerely hope and pray that this will be the case.

 

While some new churches are being built and others, mostly Russian Orthodox, have been allowed to reopen, many other congregations are denied recognition and, therefore, legality. The Ukrainian Catholic Church, the Uniate Church, is still closed, outlawed, and persecuted. Religious instruction of children outside the home -- Sunday schools, Hebrew schools, or even confirmation classes, and the production of religious study material are all still illegal activities. And about those Bibles, the authorities have promised to print 100,000 copies for a country of 280 million people. Yet now, there are at least signs by Soviet authorities of a new law on the freedom of conscience, reflecting the interests of religious organizations.

 

So, while every positive step taken by the Soviets is welcomed, we realize that this is just a beginning. Let me also say, in particular, that the rights of Soviet Jews have taken up much of our official time, and this is very close to my heart. Our hope is for the doors to open fully to emigration and to full freedom for all faiths.

 

So, the earlier predictions by some that once the grandmothers died nobody would remember that there had been a church in Russia are wrong. Instead, the church in Russia is still full of grandmothers, women who were little children in 1917, and they're joined by the younger generation, longing to satisfy the need, the hunger, that no manmade institution in any society can ever fulfill. Today roughly 90 million people in the Soviet Union, or nearly a third of the population, proclaim some form of belief in God.

 

And it is not surprising that revolutions devoted to reshaping man as if he were so much clay deny one of the most basic teachings of Judeo-Christian belief: that after God shaped Adam from dust, he breathed into him the divine principle of life. There's a wonderful passage in ``Doctor Zhivago,'' in which Pasternak speaks of his bitter disillusionment with the philosophy of materialism and the bloody revolution it has spawned. ``When I hear people speak of reshaping life,'' he says, ``I fall into despair. People who can say that have never understood a thing about life -- they have never felt its breath, its heartbeat. They look on it as a lump of raw material that needs to be processed by them, to be ennobled by their touch. But life is never a material, a substance to be molded. Life is the principle of self-renewal, it is constantly renewing and remaking and changing and transfiguring itself, it is infinitely beyond your or my obtuse theories about it.''

 

The history of the 20th century has too often been brutal and tragic, but it has taught us one lesson that should fill our hearts with hope and joy, for we have found that the more religion is oppressed, the greater the attempt to extinguish that life principle, that divine spark -- the more it glows. History is etched with stories of those who suffered religious persecution, yes, but it also tells of transcendence, devotion, and sanctity, even conversion.

 

We think of the strengthened conviction Alexander Solzhenitsyn gained in prison, and the case of the Soviet psychiatrist Anatoliy Koryagin, recently released after serving 6 years in prison. He sought baptism as soon as he emigrated. And we think of heroism and courage that can only remind us of the early Christian martyrs. One such is Anna Chertkova, recently released after being held in a Soviet psychiatric hospital since 1973 for no other crime than her faith; or Alfonsas Svarinskas, a 62-year-old Lithuanian priest, who has spent 18 years in prison and is not scheduled to be released until 1990. He is gravely ill and has petitioned for permission to go abroad to receive medical care; or Bishop Julijonas Steponavicius, in internal exile since 1961 for refusing to collaborate with the authorities.

 

How many men and women have had their faith tested? Now we see some people who have served prison sentences for the unauthorized practice of religion being released. And no one has been imprisoned on that ground for the last 2 years. Our hopes and prayers are for this expression of change by the Soviet authorities to continue.

 

The faith of the peoples of the Soviet Union is pure and unbreakable. As Moses led his people from bondage in Egypt, as the early Christians not only withstood pagan Rome but converted an empire, we pray that the millennium of Christianity in Kiev Rus will mean freedom for the faithful in Russia, in the Ukraine, the Baltic States, and all the regions of the Soviet Union. And if we pray, we might want to use the words of the 22d Psalm:

 

``In Thee our fathers trusted; they trusted, and Thou didst deliver them.

 

``To Thee they cried out and were delivered; in Thee they trusted and were not disappointed.''

 

I have to add a little something here. Recently, a woman wrote me a letter and enclosed in the letter was a copy of what can only be called a prayer. But the story of that -- it's in that single page -- of a young Russian soldier in a shellhole in World War II, knowing that his unit was going to announce -- or going to advance the attack, looking up at the stars and revealing for the first time that he had been taught all his life that there was no God. But now he believed there was. And he looked up at the heavens and spoke so sincerely and said, ``Maybe before the night is over I'll be coming to You. And I hope You will forgive what I believed for so long, the foolishness, because I know now there is a God.'' And that letter was found on the body of the young soldier who was killed in the coming engagement. I thought sometimes of taking it to Moscow with me -- maybe the General Secretary might like to read it.

 

Well, thank you all very much. God bless you.

 

Note: The President spoke at 2:44 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.