Halting decades of state-sponsored atheism, the Soviet legislature Wednesday overwhelmingly endorsed a landmark law on religion that lifts a longtime ban on Sunday schools for children and home prayer services while explicitly prohibiting discrimination against believers.
"This bill has been won by our people through much suffering," Mikhail Kulakov, chairman of the country's Seventh-day Adventist Church, said in double-edged remarks showing both his sadness and joy. "It will end the persecution of people for their religious convictions."
President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church as a child but says he is not a believer, promised the law almost 2 1/2 years ago as a major element in his drive to humanize Soviet society. The Supreme Soviet approved it in principle, 341 to 1 with one abstention, as Kulakov, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II, Chief Rabbi Adolf Shayevich of Moscow's Choral Synagogue and other spiritual leaders looked on.
Although protracted debate and the lack of a quorum delayed formal adoption of all of the bill's 31 articles, a process that is to resume Monday, the "Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations" mandates sweeping and revolutionary changes in Soviet church-state relations.
Scrapping Draconian restrictions on believers' actions contained in the 1929 Law on Religious Associations, the glasnost- era legislation permits collective or individual religious instruction for children and adults, religious services in private homes and the outright ownership by congregations of churches and other buildings for worship.
Recognizing for the first time the right of Soviet citizens not merely to "believe," but also to make public and share their faith, the new law says the government cannot "restrict the study, financing or propagandizing" of the many creeds practiced in the Soviet Union, which include Orthodoxy, Islam, Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, Protestantism and Judaism.
Although religious liberty has been safeguarded, in theory, by the 1977 Soviet constitution, the new law marks a major retreat from longtime Marxist-Leninist policy by also barring government financing of the "propaganda of atheism," which presumably includes the blatantly anti-religious institutions called "museums of religion and atheism" found in most Soviet cities.
"This is a major, major step--it will put thousands of atheism instructors out of work," Kent R. Hill, executive director of The Institute on Religion and Democracy and a specialist on Soviet religion, said in a telephone interview from Washington.
"When we talk about atheism, we forget about what atheism did in our country," Armenian lawmaker Genrikh S. Igityan glumly told the Supreme Soviet. "The weapon of atheism was the NKVD (Stalin-era secret police) which destroyed the most important cultural monuments of the people."
In line with the new and honored place of religion in society, the law bars discrimination based on religious beliefs, outlawing the official harassment, job discrimination and other mistreatment that countless people here were long subjected to, often, if not always, with the complicity of the authorities.
However, the deputies clashed on whether to allow after-hours use of school classrooms for religious instruction, and one of the Supreme Soviet's two chambers, the Council of Nationalities, voted down the proposal as violating the principle of church-state separation.
"How can we say that religion has done only good for society when we look at Beirut, at Tehran?" said Ukrainian physicist Sergei M. Ryabchenko, an outspoken opponent of the measure. "Given current conditions, we cannot allow our schools to be turned into battlegrounds between conflicting confessions."
The law does leave a few of the old Stalin-era restrictions in place; for example, a government agency, currently the Council on Religious Affairs, will continue to oversee religious activities. But its exact functions and even its name are still to be defined.
The law also firmly maintains the state's monopoly on education, and Kulakov complained that Soviet religious denominations will not have the right, as churches and synagogues do in the United States, to run their own schools.
To some extent, the once-outlawed practices that will become legal--like religious instruction for children--are flourishing already in the more liberal environment fostered by Gorbachev. The general crisis in society, as well as the discrediting of old orthodoxies like Marxism-Leninism, have also brought a rebirth of faith.
Although many Soviet Jews fear a flare-up of anti-Semitism, under Gorbachev they have become freer than at any time in memory to attend religious schools and learn Hebrew, an act for which some Jewish militants in the early 1980s were sentenced to labor camp. In Central Asia, interest in Islam is also booming.
In an event symbolizing the renaissance of religion and the Soviet government's new willingness to accommodate it, the largest and most historic of the Kremlin's Orthodox cathedrals, the Uspensky Cathedral, was reconsecrated Sunday.
The Bolsheviks who took control in Russia in 1917 were ardent atheists, seeing in Russian Orthodoxy a prop of the autocracy and of class injustice. "Religion is a kind of vodka by which the slaves of capital blacken their human figure and their aspirations for a more dignified life," V. I. Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, once wrote contemptuously.
One Western source has estimated that during the first six years of Soviet rule, more than 1,200 priests perished at the hands of the Bolsheviks. During the decades that followed, most of the 54,000 Orthodox churches that had been in operation before the Russian Revolution were destroyed, shut down, or turned into warehouses or other "socially useful" enterprises."
Gorbachev, too, began his Kremlin leadership with a much more hostile attitude toward organized religion. In 1986, while visiting Uzbekistan, he complained of the persistence of Muslim practices there and demanded a "decisive and uncompromising struggle against manifestations of religion."
New Freedoms: Religion in the Soviet Union In the past, Moscow has suppressed religion and encouraged atheism. A new law endorsed by the Supreme Soviet underscores the freedom of belief promised in the constitution. Atheist: 60% (est.) Russian Orthodox: 20% Muslim: 10% Protestant, Georgian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic: 7% Jewish: 1% (less than)
Figures may not equal 100% due to rounding.