In CCE 40.16 (“Letters and Statements”) there was a short summary of a letter from Lev REGELSON and the Orthodox priest Gleb YAKUNIN, sent in March 1976 to Philip Potter, Secretary-General of the World Council of Churches (WCC ).
The Chronicle considers it necessary to give a more detailed account of this letter.
The authors of the letter note with satisfaction the achievements of the 1975 WCC Assembly in Nairobi regarding the fight against the absence of religious rights in various countries of the world, including the USSR. The Assembly’s decision to set up a WCC sub-committee to investigate the position of religion and religious believers in these countries was particularly important.
Lev Regelson (b. 1939) and Father Gleb Yakunin (1934-2014)
Regelson and Yakunin propose that the investigation into the position of religion in our country should take as its starting-point the existing legislation on religion.
This legislation was introduced in the USSR in 1929; on 23 June 1975 a decree of the Presidium of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet made certain amendments.
The authors of the letter draw attention, first of all, to the issue of the registration of religious congregations. Soviet law regards such registration, not as a statement of fact establishing the existence of a religious congregation, but as permission for it to exist. The right of registration (and the right to refuse registration) is wholly in the hands of the Council for Religious Affairs.
In this way:
“A religious congregation cannot exist on its own initiative, by the wishes of its members and according to the law: on its own, before registration and without it, the congregation is forbidden to exist, and only the administrative sanction of the authorities can lift this ban in each individual case.
“To clarify the situation, let us imagine that, having decided to invite friends to our house for some celebration, or merely to pass free time together, we would not have the right to do so, on pain of criminal prosecution, unless we first obtained permission from a special government authority!
“This is the situation, not only with regard to registration, but also with regard to gatherings organized by religious congregations and groups. Every such gathering (with the exception of religious services in religious cult buildings) may have special permission from the local authorities. The same applies to religious rites.”
The authors of the letter recall that “the principle of sanction through registration” was used as a weapon of religious discrimination even before the revolution (at that time against non-Orthodox congregations) and was subjected to severe criticism in the State Duma.
Two, depriving religious congregations of the right to own their meeting houses and cult objects, and refusing religious societies the right of persons in law, made those religious denominations which were traditionally linked with church services wholly subject to the arbitrary authority of the State administration.
The statute on cult property, which prescribes confiscation if the church itself is closed, is especially difficult for such denominations as the Orthodox, the Catholics and the Old Believers. After all, church canon law and tradition forbid the confiscation of church property (especially the holy vessels) and their use for worldly purposes. Infringement of this canonical prohibition is defined as “blasphemy” and obliges believers to oppose it by any means. In this regard, the well-known situation which existed in 1922-3 could be repeated at any moment.
The third discriminatory aspect of Soviet legislation on religious cults, as noted by the authors of the letter, is the prohibition of missionary and cultural-social activity by religious congregations. The  Soviet Constitution (Article 124) gives atheists freedom of anti-religious propaganda, but to believers it gives only the “freedom to perform religious cult-practices” (while the first Constitution of the RSFSR, in the corresponding article, granted all citizens freedom of both religious and anti-religious propaganda).
The law on religious cults permits preaching on religious themes only in a meeting-house during a religious service. This in fact represents a ban on missionary work.
This ban specifically puts Christians in the position of having to break Soviet law, as nothing can compel Christians, even by force of law, to renounce one of the Saviour’s most important commands: “Go ye and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
At present, those who suffer most from the ban referred to are the Baptists and Christians of other denominations who carry out the greatest missionary activity: but in principle it applies to all Christians, and those of other confessions, who regard missionary work as a necessary precept and thus inevitably find themselves in conflict with the state.
In 1966 the Presidium of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet issued a decree “On the application of Article 142 of the RSFSR Criminal Code”, which qualified “the perpetration of deceitful activities with the aim of awakening religious superstitions in the population” as a crime. The Commentary to the Criminal Code (also see V. A. Kuroyedov in his Izvestiya article of 26 January 1976) identifies such activities with acts of healing at holy places and with “dissemination of rumours about the end of the world”.
In this connection the letter refers to the fact that, as early as 1918, Deputy People’s Commissar of Justice Shpitsberg called for Holy Communion to be banned as “an act of sorcery”.
“As for the ‘rumour’ about the inevitably approaching ‘end of the world’, or more precisely the Second Coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the whole Christian Church has persisted in disseminating this rumour …for almost 2,000 years.”
The authors consider the fourth essential characteristic of the religious situation in the USSR to be the discriminatory nature of the education system and the ban on organized forms of private religious instruction and education.
The saturation of compulsory school courses with atheist content is traumatic for religious pupils and gives rise to sharp conflicts within the school.
“The inclusion of atheism and atheist propositions in the compulsory curriculum of educational institutes… cuts off the path to higher education for religious believers.”
The 1974 Law on National Education lays down that parents must bring up their children in the spirit “of high communist morality”. Certain interpretations of this law make it possible for parents who give their children a religious education to be deprived of their parental rights.
On the other hand, private religious education of minors by anyone other than their parents is a crime, under the provisions of Article 142 of the RSFSR Criminal Code.
The logical conclusion of the letter from Yakunin and Regelson is as follows: if the Law on Religious Cults were to be applied in full, religious life in our country would be impossible. However, the actually existing legal restrictions are sufficient for one to speak of the absence of religious freedom in the USSR.
At any moment the law could be used to revive the persecutions of 1918-1923, the 1930s and 1959-1964. To normalize the relationship between religion and the State, a radical reform of the Law on Religious Cults would be required.
For the full text of the Regelson-Yakunin letter, see M. Bourdeaux, H. Hebly and E. Voss (eds), Religious Liberty in the Soviet Union. The WCC and the USSR, a Post-Nairobi Documentation, Keston College, Kent, 1976, pp. 40-53.