MOSCOW -- The Soviet Union officially ended seven decades of religious repression yesterday with a new law guaranteeing millions of believers the right to confess, practice and teach the faith of their choosing.
The 341-2 vote by the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet marked the total defeat of state atheism in what was perhaps one of history's longest, cruelest and most determined wars against religious belief.
The Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations codifies the official tolerance and even encouragement of religion that under the reforms of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has gradually come to replace persecution.
The law declares that every citizen has the right to adopt, practice and proselytize any faith or none at all and bans government interference in religion. It brings taxes and social protections for clergy in line with those for others and guarantees the right to study for the priesthood in the Soviet Union or abroad. The law requires local authorities to answer within one month any request that a church building now in state hands be returned for religious use. It encourages, though it does not require, the return of such buildings.
Since Mr. Gorbachev received Russian Orthodox Church leaders the Kremlin in a dramatic gesture in April 1988, thousands of churches and mosques have reopened and the mass publication and importation of the Bible, the Koran and other religious books have been permitted. Dozens of religious activists have been released from prison camps.
Political and social discrimination against believers largely has been eliminated. Highly publicized religious services, with top state officials in attendance, have been held in the Kremlin cathedrals, which for decades operated only as museums.
A sign of the huge change is the membership in the Supreme Soviet of several Christian and Moslem clerics, including Patriarch Alexi II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The legislation is "a major event in the spiritual life and renaissance of our society and its spiritual and
moral education," the white-bearded patriarch told reporters. He singled out the legalization of charitable work and the religious education of children, both long banned, as particularly important consequences of the new law.
Patriarch Alexi, officially identified in the Parliament by his secular name as Alexei M. Ridiger, lost the final legislative tussle that held up final passage of the law last week.
He had argued that the law should specifically authorize the after-hours use of state school buildings for religious classes. His view was backed by historian Roy A. Medvedev, a Communist and non-believer who said that as a former director of two rural schools he knew that many villages have no other premises for religious classes.
But other deputies vociferously opposed the clause, saying many Soviet schools already are so overburdened that they have to hold the regular school day in two or even three shifts. A Moslem deputy said members of his faith can practice their religion in any case only in a mosque. And a Ukrainian deputy warned that Orthodox and Catholic believers in the Western Ukraine
could end up in a violent struggle for school buildings.
In the end, the argument that appeared to swing the
opinion was that under new Soviet practice, everything that is not forbidden is automatically permitted. Thus, even though the Supreme Soviet did not specifically authorize the after-hours religious use of school buildings, such use should be permitted wherever local people demand it, deputies said.
The morning's debate on the separation of church and state -- a subject that has warranted enormous legislative and judicial attention over many years in the United States -- underscored the magnitude of the task undertaken by the Parliament elected last year.
In effect, the deputies are writing from scratch a complete set of laws governing the whole range of human activity. The process understandably has faced repeated delays because of legal debates and the day-to-day actions required by the deepening crisis in the economy and public order.
Lately, the union Parliament has faced challenges from republican legislatures, which have declared their laws higher than union laws. The Russian Federation had asked the union Parliament not to pass a religion law but to leave religion to be addressed by the republics. But Pa
nTC triarch Alexi and others argued that a unionwide fundamental law was called for, partly to declare an end to unionwide repression.
One of the first acts of V. I. Lenin and the Bolsheviks after they took power in 1917 was to strip the church of its property. Many priests were arrested or executed during the civil war that followed, since the church was a focus of opposition to the new regime.
Josef V. Stalin stepped up persecution of the church with a law in 1929 that banned active religious teaching or propaganda. In 1932, as part of an infatuation with state planning, the government adopted an "anti-religion five-year plan" pledging that by 1937, "not a single house of prayer will be needed any longer in any territory of the Soviet Union, and the very notion of God will be expunged as a survival of the Middle Ages and an instrument for holding down the working masses."
The plan was not fulfilled, but nor can it be considered a failure: According to Michael Bourdeaux, a Western specialist on Soviet religion, of the 54,174 Russian Orthodox churches operating at the time of the revolution, fewer than 100 were still
open in 1939.
From the early years of Soviet rule, Communist ideology was imposed on society to take the place formerly occupied by religion -- complete with Marxist "catechism," Communist Party "priests" to interpret sacred Leninist texts and even a shrine for -- pilgrimages in the form of Lenin's Red Square mausoleum.
The new religion, however, never managed to oust the old. The sharp decline of Communist faith in recent years has been accompanied by a resurgence of traditional religion, as well as the burgeoning of newer cults such as the Hare Krishna sect. Today, the persecution of religion and particularly the destruction of churches has been officially regretted. Agonizing slow-motion film of the demolition in the 1930s of the Church of Christ the Savior, a major 19th-century Moscow landmark, is regularly shown on TV as a symbol of senseless destruction in the past.
Recent Western estimates of the number of religious believers put Russian Orthodox at 30 million, Roman Catholics at 6 million, Jews at 2 million and Baptists at 1 million. There are about 50 million people of Islamic heritage in the Soviet Union.