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Gorbachev Pledges to Ease Curbs on Orthodox Church

Times Staff Writer

Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev held a meeting Friday with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, acknowledged past mistakes in Soviet treatment of religious believers and announced that his government is drawing up a new law on freedom of conscience.

The official news agency Tass reported that Gorbachev, in his first formal meeting with Patriarch Pimen, said that the church has a role to play in helping the country realize a restructuring of society that is the central part of Gorbachev’s program of reforms.

“Designed to perform purely religious functions, the church cannot keep away from complicated problems taking place in society,” Gorbachev said.

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He spoke of a new kind of relationship between church and state under perestroika, or social and economic restructuring.

“The believers are Soviet people, workers, patriots, and they have the full right to express their conviction with dignity.

“Perestroika, democratization concern them as well--in full measure and without any restriction,” he said.

The meeting between the two men came at a time of increasing indications of a relaxation in the Soviet Union concerning the practice of recognized religions.

Until recently, the Russian Orthodox Church was tolerated on a small scale, but Soviet citizens were discouraged by the Communist Party’s officially declared policy of atheism from attending church services.

In recent weeks, priests have been shown on Soviet television in a positive light, Pimen has expressed himself at length in newspaper articles, and services have been more open than before.

Unprecedented Meeting

Even with the recent warming of relations with the church, the public meeting between Gorbachev and Pimen was without precedent. It was described as part of ceremonies marking the 1,000th anniversary of Christianity in the country.

The meeting, held in the Kremlin’s Catherine Hall, was shown on the widely viewed nightly news on Soviet television and a long account of the meeting was carried by Tass.

Gorbachev said Christians had suffered during the “cult of personality,” a reference to the bloody rule of dictator Josef Stalin.

Mistakes ‘Being Rectified’

“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. “From their pages we hear the voice of the church, the voice of those present here.”

The controlled Soviet press has recently carried a number of outraged accounts of acts of bigotry against believers, including Christians and Muslims.

Gorbachev told the Russian Orthodox patriarch that a “new law on the freedom of conscience, now being drafted, will reflect the interests of religious organizations. . . .”

Tass gave no further details on the proposed law or its purpose. Although widely ignored, freedom of religion is guaranteed under the Soviet constitution.

Praying for Success

Pimen, 77, leader of the church for 17 years, was quoted by Tass as saying that the church is praying for the success of Gorbachev’s reform program.

“However, not all problems of church life have been resolved so far,” Pimen said.

The patriarch has complained in the past that local authorities are slow to register groups of believers as a recognized church, effectively barring them from holding public religious services.

Church officials have reported a recent surge of interest in the church among young people after decades in which only the elderly have been permitted to attend services.


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