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The Continuing Soviet Persecution of Christians

The following article is an extract from Giovanni Codevilla’s article, “The Soviet Antireligious Policy: Legislation and Practice”, which was originally published in Italian in February, 1980 in the Review Revista del Clero Italiano. The author, Giovanni Codevilla teaches ecclesiastical law at the Catholic University of Milan, and at Trieste University he teaches a course on “the law” in Socialist countries.

Certain Christians sometimes imagine, as a result of reports they receive from the news media, that perfect religious freedom prevails in the Soviet Union, and that Soviet persecution of Christianity is a thing of the past. Professor Codevilla shows how far they are mistaken. He points out that it is absolutely impossible to trust the declarations wrung from ecclesiastical dignitaries in the Soviet Union.

Starting from statistical data and considering the restricted and controlled admissions of candidates to seminaries, etc., the author shows very objectively how Soviet authorities, through the most inadmissible means, pursue their Satanic aim of the complete removal of the Church's influence on society. Their means include interference in the administration of parishes, atheistic education imposed on children against their parents' will, and constant control of the activities of the clergy, who live in fear.

Our Lady of Fatima warned us: “If My requests are not granted, Russia will spread her errors throughout the world, provoking wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred, the Holy Father will have much to suffer, and several nations will be annihilated!”

The greatest of the Russian errors is militant atheism: it fights against the very reason for our existence — to know, love and serve God in this life and be happy with Him forever in the next. Militant atheism is not just a thing of the past, as some people mistakenly believe, but it is the greatest present-day danger to civilization and the eternal salvation of souls.

We in North America can thank God for His mercy that we do not suffer the persecution that Christians face in the Soviet Union. Gratitude for our freedom should inspire us to value our faith even more and to practice it as fully as we can, and to pray for the conversion of Russia so that they and all peoples of the world may enjoy the benefit of Christian civilization. Let us pray that the people of Russia can be free to worship God as He wants us all to do.

We must pray and fulfill our Blessed Mother's requests so that we do not suffer the same or worse fate than that of the Christians in Soviet Russia. By fulfilling Our Lady of Fatima’s requests, we can help the Christians in Soviet-dominated countries to throw off the cruel yoke of militant atheism. At Fatima Our Lady said: “If My requests are fulfilled, Russia will be converted and there will be Peace … in the end My Immaculate Heart will triumph …”


It is an unquestionable fact that in recent years a process of secularization has developed in many quarters, which sometimes alarmingly reflects the so-called pursuit of new values. But any claim that the figures concerning the diminution of the number of churches open to worship in U.S.S.R. show the extent and growth of this pursuit, would be unfounded — all the more so since these figures are seen more and more clearly to be in conflict with the daily proofs of a revival of interest in religion among all the different peoples in the Soviet Union, proofs which are supplied to us by non-official literature.

Photo of a Byzantine Icon in the Church of Saint Saviour in Leningrad. The Soviet authorities changed this church and many others into museums, after closing down between 1917 and 1980, all but 7,000 of the original 54,147 churches that were open in Russia in 1914, in their attempt to spiritually starve the enslaved people of Russia and Soviet dominated countries of Eastern Europe.

What Remains of Churches and Monasteries

According to the report of the Holy Synod in 1916, there were 54,147 churches and 25,593 Orthodox chapels in Russia in 1914. In 1962, there were only 11,500, and today there are about 7,000, in a territory that is far more extensive than that of the Tzarist empire.

An enormous number of churches have been destroyed, often regardless of their artwork or architectural value, or converted into museums of atheism, swimming pools, planetariums, or buildings serving secular purposes, or just closed to worship. But this fact cannot clearly be the expression, as official sources claim, of a progressive lack of interest of these peoples in religion and in the Church.

The same must be said of the diminution of the number of monasteries and seminaries. In 1917, for a population much lower than the present one, monasteries numbered 1,025. They amount to no more than about thirty today. At the time of the revolution, there were 57 major seminaries and 185 minor ones in Russia. In 1959, the latter had all been closed and there were only 8 major seminaries. Now, after the closing of the ones at Kiev and Stavropol (1960), Saratov (1961), Zirovki (1963) and Luck (1965), only those in Moscow, Leningrad and Odessa remain open.

According to the information given by the “Paper of the Patriarchate of Moscow”, the Soviet Authority has recently granted an increase of the number of classes, which have gone up from 1 to 2 in the seminaries at Odessa and Leningrad and from 2 to 3 in the Moscow one. The number of students admitted to each class is 30, so that at present 210 Orthodox seminarians a year are admitted to prepare for the priesthood.

In Lithuania and Latvia

In Lithuania, there is only one Catholic seminary (there were four of them before), the one at Kaunas, in which a larger number of students has also been authorized. In fact, while in 1976-77, there were 19 students (and 15 the preceding year), they went up to 66 the following year. However, in 1978-79, only 20 postulants were accepted out of the 40 who had applied.

At the seminary of Riga (Latvia), in 1977-78 there were 19 seminarians.

Different Situation According to Regions

The number of ministers of worship is quite inadequate to meet the needs of the various Churches and confessions. It is enough to recall as an example that in Lithuania, in 1976, 25 priests died and only 9 were ordained.

The percentage of churches closed is not identical in all the republics of the Soviet Union. It is certainly less in certain regions, for example in Lithuania and in Western Ukraine, where the (Catholic) Church enjoys wide and growing sympathy, all the more so in that the population sees in it the only power capable not only of resisting the imposition of atheism on society, but also of defending cultural autonomy and national identity against the heavy process of Russification. It is not due to chance, therefore, if nearly half of the churches that have remained open to worship in the Soviet Union are in Western Ukraine.

In Lithuania, Catholics, amounting to 2,500,000 have at their disposal 628 buildings of worship, as against 1,100 in 1940. Altogether, the number of churches open in the three Baltic republics is about one thousand.

In Western Ukraine, in the region of Lvov-Ternopol, there are about 1,000 churches, a figure which must be regarded as comparatively high, especially if compared with that of other regions. Thus, for example, in the whole territory of Perm, which is extremely extensive (160,000 square km), there are only three Orthodox churches; in that of Leningrad, about 30; in that of Orenbourg, 12.

Particularly Deplorable Cases

If, from a general statistical point of view, the existence in the U.S.S.R. of one church per 40,000 inhabitants may strictly speaking not seem alarming, the problem is seen to be quite different when we consider the enormous extent of the country, the countless number of villages, and certain particular situations. Thus, in the whole of the Karelian republic, there are only three churches open to worship, at a distance of 200 km from one another. Likewise, in the town of Sverdlovsk, there is only one church for a population of a million and a half. The same must be said of Chelyabinsk and Gorki. Moreover, the Orthodox faithful there have only one building available for worship. There are towns with over 100,000 inhabitants that do not have any church, for example, Pervouralsk and Kamensk-Uralsky in the region of Sverdlovsk, also Revda and Shadrinsk.

The Catholics of Minsk, who number over 50,000, do not have any church and are without a priest. In the republic of Georgia, there is a single Catholic community at Tbilisi, with a church served by two priests. It is the only one in the whole of the Caucasus; the Armenian Catholics, who in 1917 amounted to about 40,000 grouped in 56 parishes, now have no churches of their own at all.

Slow Down in Closings

If the closing of buildings of worship proceeds today at a less rapid rate than in the time of Khrushchev, that does not mean that the Soviet authorities have changed their program; they are merely avoiding, at least for the moment, shutting the few monasteries which are still active (only two in the Soviet federative Republic of Russia: that of Zagorsk near Moscow, and that of Petchery in the region of Pskov); and they are no longer reducing the number of churches, at least in regions where there remains only a minimum, such as in Moldavia, where there is only one Catholic building (a chapel in the cemetery of Kicinev) for a population of 15,000 faithful scattered in numerous villages and having only a single priest at their disposal.

Number of Ministers

In spite of the concessions of which we have spoken with regard to the seminaries, the number of ministers of worship diminishes at a rate parallel to that of churches. Priests (there were 5,900 Orthodox in 1976) are obliged to serve several parishes. Many communities spend whole years without spiritual assistance. There is no lack of vacant dioceses. That of Vilnius, in Lithuania, has been without a bishop since 1961, the date on which Mons. J. Steponavicius was prevented from exercising his office.

The closing of buildings of worship is a measure which the authority can adopt at its discretion, according to the legislation in force. It is, moreover, only one of the means used by the regime to reach its aim of the radical laicisation of society.

The Drama of the Byzantine Catholic Church

In certain cases it was preferred to liquidate churches and confessions completely. Such was the case of the Lutheran Reformed Church which, in 1939, had in Ukraine 30 congregations, 15 ministers and 10,000 faithful. Most of the religious sects are in the same situation. Far more serious is the price paid by the Byzantine Catholic Church, too often forgotten in the West, which was suppressed in 1946. Following upon a so-called Council convened that year, in manifest violation of both Orthodox and Catholic canonical norms, the faithful of this Church were obliged either to adhere to Orthodoxy, or to unite with the Catholic Church of Latin rite. The same fate befell the Greek Catholics of South Carpathia and the eparchy of Presov in 1949 and 1950. The Ukrainian Catholic Church of Eastern rite, the union of which with Rome goes back to the Council of Brest in 1596, was well represented (and still is in clandestinity) in Western Ukraine, as is shown by the following figures concerning the year 1943-44, supplied by Bocjurkiw: there were four dioceses (now all suppressed); eight bishops (now dead, in prison, or exiled); 2,772 parishes (now absorbed by the state-controlled church and partly suppressed); 142 monasteries and convents, excluding the archdiocese of Lvov (now handed over to the state-controlled Orthodox Church or confiscated); 2,638 secular priests (half yielded to pressure to join the Orthodox, while the rest are in prison, exiled, or operating clandestinely); 164 monks (now driven out or imprisoned, like their 229 seminarians).

When these data are known, we cannot be astonished at the painful and repeated appeals of Cardinal Slipyj for the defense of this Church, driven into clandestinity today and served by about 300 priests led by at least three bishops — appeals which, unfortunately, often fall upon the empty air or are wrongly interpreted.

The arbitrary measures taken against the Byzantine Catholic Church have been denounced in many documents addressed to Soviet authorities. It is significant that well-known representatives of progressivist culture belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church, such as for example Solzhenitsyn and Levitin-Krasnov, have aligned themselves among the defenders of this strangled Church.