Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev met the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church today and said the Soviet state has made tragic mistakes in its past treatment of Christians.
In his first formal reception of Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Pimen, Gorbachev also said believers “have the full right to express their conviction with dignity” and pledged the state would not interfere, according to the official Tass press agency.
Gorbachev said Christians suffered during the “cult of personality,” a reference to the bloody rule of late Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
“Not everything was easy and simple in the sphere of state-church relations. . . . Religious organizations were also affected by the tragic developments that occurred in the period of the cult of personality,” Gorbachev said, according to Tass.
“Mistakes made with regard to the church and believers in the 1930s and the years that followed are being rectified. Our newspapers and magazines write about this with candor and objectivity,” he said.
During the 1930s, Stalin closed hundreds of churches and sent many believers to labor camps. He only relented when he needed church support during World War II, when he permitted the reopening of some churches.
Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev revived the persecution and closed many of the churches that had remained open.
Gorbachev met Pimen and members of the Holy Synod at their request in connection with the upcoming millennium of Christianity in Russia, Tass said.
The meeting took place at St. Catherine’s Palace in the Kremlin, and part of it was shown on Soviet television Friday evening.
Gorbachev told them that there are differences between the church and Soviet state in world outlook.
But he spoke of a new approach to church-state relations under perestroika, or restructuring, a general word Gorbachev uses for his program of social and economic reforms.
“The believers are Soviet people, workers, patriots, and they have the full right to express their conviction with dignity.
“ Perestroika, democratization concerns them as well--in full measure and without any restriction,” he said, according to Tass.
Gorbachev said a new law on freedom of conscience is now being drafted that will “reflect the interests of religious organizations as well.” He did not elaborate.
The Soviet leader said that under Soviet state founder V. I. Lenin a decree was to enable the church to carry on its activities without any outside interference.
‘We ... Ardently Pray’
Gorbachev said the Soviet government had departed from those principles but said they are now being restored, Tass said.
Pimen responded with very warm words, telling Gorbachev that the church is praying for the success of perestroika, according to Tass.
“We church people ardently pray for the success of the restructuring process and strive to do everything possible for its development,” Pimen said, Tass reported.
But, Pimen added, not all church problems are solved and he expressed hope for their resolution, Tass said without elaboration.
Pimen, 77, who has steered the church for 17 years, has been criticized recently by dissident priests who accuse him of sycophancy to an atheist state.
Gorbachev said last November that Stalin had made gross political mistakes and that many people inside and outside the Communist Party had been subject to repression, but he has not spoken directly of state persecution of Christians before.
His meeting with Pimen and members of the Holy Synod is the only time in recent memory when the leader of the Kremlin has received the leader of the Orthodox Church.