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Freedom Of Worship (Eastern Europe)

Volume 982: debated on Tuesday 1 April 1980

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Newton.]

10.45 pm

Later this year representatives from the United States, Canada and the 35 European States which signed the final act of security and co-operation in Europe in 1975 will meet in Madrid to review, for a second time, the progress that has been achieved, if any, on the implication of the principles on which they agreed at Helsinki.

Among the principles guiding relations between the participating States referred to in basket I of the final act—which they declared they were determined to respect and put into practice irrespective of their political, economic and social systems—is principle VII:
"Respect for Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, including the Freedom of Thought, Conscience, Religion or Belief for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion."
The act goes on to state that within this framework the participating States will recognise and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practise, alone or in community with others, a religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.

The Helsinki review conference in Madrid provides the participating Powers with the opportunity to compare paper commitments with harsh reality—theory with practice—on the question of freedom of worship in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Because this country has enjoyed complete freedom of worship without official control and with little discrimination on religious grounds since final Catholic emancipation in 1926, we do, I think, take very much for granted all those unrestricted activities to do with the Church.

For example, we take for granted the wide choice of Churches, the regular services, the parish council, Church ownership of liturgical objects, the distribution of Church literature, the collection boxes and the charity schemes, the pastoral work, Sunday school and the State-aided church schools. There is a choice of religious programmes on radio and television on Sundays. All these, and much more, we accept without a second thought, even though we may not ourselves be involved.

Would that that were the case throughout Europe, but it is not, for Christians, Jews, Moslems and others who live on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

At first glance it would appear that Churches and worshippers enjoy similar freedom in Eastern Europe. After all, article 52 of the new 1977 Soviet constitution—which is reflected in the constitutions of every Eastern European State —guarantees each citizen freedom of conscience, which it defines as
"The right to profess any religion, or to profess none, to celebrate religious rites, or to conduct atheist propaganda."
Every Eastern European country approved the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 18 of which states:
"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief. and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."
These principles are also reflected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights approved by the United Nations General Assembly, ratified in every Eastern European State and in force since March 1976.

In addition, article 18 of the covenant states that the parties to the covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

A visitor to any Eastern European town or village that is open to tourists will, as often as not, discover at least one church open to the public for those wishing to worship. They are usually, but not entirely, confined to elderly people. The visitor may be forgiven for supposing that while there appears to have been a decline in religious activity in recent years, as in the West, there exists a sufficient number of churches and clergy to satisfy demand, together with an easy tolerance by officialdom of those wishing to worship.

That is precisely the belief that the Eastern European States would have us accept. The reality is tragically the reverse. Communism is so ideologically opposed to religion that if one is known to be an active Christian or Jew, one's job may be in jeopardy, one's career prospects nil and one's chances of passing any examination or excelling in any field remote, unless one is prepared to abandon one's faith.

Those British Olympic competitors who still choose to go to Moscow should be aware that they will be very hard put to find a committed Christian or Jew in the Soviet Union.

The policy is no different from that of apartheid. Believers are to a great extent second- or even third-class citizens, without rights. It is not hard to understand the reason why. Such Government persuasion of mind and soul results from the Communist appreciation that the only threat to party loyalty lies in the spiritual alternative. As Lenin said,
"God is the personal enemy of the Communist Society. We must fight against religion—the opium of the people".
Therefore, 90 per cent. of the churches, seminaries and religious foundations have been arbitrarily closed since the revolution, with the aim of systematically eliminating the spiritual life of the people and of depriving religion of its social base as well as its intellectual arguments. Yet, despite 60 years of the severest persecution, Christianity behind the Iron Curtain survives in two forms —the Church controlled and the Church underground—and there is evidence today of a religious revival, not least among young people who have found the atheistic materialism as propagated by the State to be no substitute for peace of mind and the dictates of conscience.

This ruthless policy adopted by the Soviet Union towards freedom of religion serves as a model for all the other Eastern European States to follow, and the restrictions imposed are paralleled in most of them. Despite the constitutionally gauranteed right to profess any religion, it is through the use of numerous laws, decrees, unpublished Government regulations and party directives that those who wish to worship are harassed, discriminated against and persecuted.

Although article 51 of the Soviet constitution gives the right of association for any recognised organisation, it is as a result of decrees issued under a special "law governing religious associations" —decrees that have the effect of making it virtually impossible for churches to exist and placing them at the mercy of officialdom.

The membership of religious organisations is restricted to 20, and they cannot combine. Every organisation and every service must obtain official registration and permission. Services can be held only in prayer centres provided by the State. The building of new churches without approval—granted very rarely—is prohibited. Religious conferences require special official permission. All liturgical objects belong to the State and are only loaned to the churches. Pastoral duties and social work are strictly limited and visits to hospitals, old people's homes and prisons forbidden. Also forbidden are Sunday schools, Bible-reading classes, church women's organisations and youth groups.

Article 66 states that children must be brought up in an atheistic spirit, and they are indoctrinated from the time they go to nursery school. Under paragraph 142 of penal code RSFSR, a grandmother who tells her grandchildren about the Bible risks a sentence of forced labour for a period of up to a year.

It is against that unbending attitude of the State that 4,000 mothers petitioned recently. That is the reason why so many Christians as well as Jews seek exit visas, including the Vashchenko and Chmykhalova families, who have been in asylum in the American embassy in Moscow since June 1977 and whom I visited last year. I hope that their cases in particular will be resolved at Madrid, and I look forward tonight to the assurances of my hon. Friend the Minister that that will be sought.

Although article 50 of the Soviet constitution speaks of "freedom of speech", religious organisations have no possibility of presenting their case to the public. While anti-religious propaganda is permitted and assisted by the State, religious literature and propaganda are forbidden and religion boycotted by all mass media. Even the importation and transportation of Bibles depend upon the political climate of the day.

In the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Bulgaria and, to a lesser extent, Hungary and Eastern Germany, the Ministry of Religious Affairs, staffed exclusively by atheists, controls the very existence of churches through its power to refuse registration, to limit congregations, to deny meeting places, to vet appointments of unsuitable ministers, and even to decide the theological curriculum in the seminaries that remain open.

The constitutionally guaranteed separation of Church from State, as with so much else in Communist countries, exists neither in form nor in reality. The exception, of course, is Poland, where a running battle between the Communist State and the Catholic Church maintains a degree of religious freedom. In every other Eastern European State, that freedom is sought by the more courageous through the Church underground, by the holding of meetings and services secretly in private flats, closed churches, cemeteries and woods. For them the penalty of discovery is severe.

Because it is almost impossible actively to practise religion in most countries in Eastern Europe without penalty, thousands of believers have been imprisoned, interned in phychiatric clinics or punished and deported over the years. In 1956 the last United Nations Commission on Human Rights to visit the Soviet Union recorded more than 1 million prisoners of conscience. Professor Orlov believes that figure to be nearer 5 million today.

For millions suffering under antireligious repression, the Helsinki agreement of 1975 aroused hopes of peace, safety and release from fear. Their hopes have remained unfulfilled. The continued restriction of freedom of belief and conscience and the imprisonment of people who appeal to the provisions of the agreement cast doubt on the value of the conference itself.

There can be no point in solemnly signing such treaties if some of the States involved intend, in advance, to disregard their provisions. It would indeed be inhuman even to negotiate such international agreements whilst participating States punish and incarcerate their citizens for appealing to the provisions contained in them.

My hon. Friend's last six-monthly report on Soviet and East European implementation of the final act, in the Official Report, referred to the arrest, last November, of, among others, Father Gleb Yakunin, the chairman of the Christian Committee for the Defence of Believers' Rights in Moscow. Since then a further wave of arrests in the Soviet Union has included the theologian Lev Regelson and Father Gleb's successor, Father Dimitri Dudko, a popular and courageous preacher, who refused to accept the atheistic control of the Orthodox Church. Three weeks ago Father Dudko's successor, Victor Kapitanchkuk, was also arrested.

I look forward to learning from my hon. Friend tonight of a new resolve on the part of the West, at the review conference this year, to hold to account the Eastern European participating States for the continuing violations of the Helsinki final act. I urge on my hon. Friend, first, the establishment of a special standing commission of the conference, empowered to investigate fully any evidence, submitted to it by an individual citizen or group of citizens of any participating State, of discrimination and persecution for religious belief and to report its recommendations and publish its findings; secondly, the release and rehabilitation of all those who have been imprisoned for appealing to the provisions of the final act and an amnesty for all prisoners condemned on grounds of belief and conscience; and, finally, such measures as will provide for the lifting of restrictions on freedom of worship and conscience.

The subject of this debate tonight concerns one of the most fundamental human rights, the foundation of which lies in man's unalienable dignity as a human person and extends beyond every ideological frontier. It is a debate that is appropriate not just to Holy Week but for all time whilst mankind is persecuted for worshipping the God who made him.

10.58 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) on raising this matter this evening. As he said, it is especially appropriate that he should have done so during Easter Week and in the months when we are turning our attention to the Madrid review conference.

My hon. Friend has followed closely the subject of religious freedom in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. He has travelled to the Soviet Union and has displayed his knowledge tonight and on other occasions, for he is the rapporteur of the Assembly of the Council of Europe committee on relations with non-member countries, which is currently dealing with the question of freedom of thought, conscience and religion in Eastern Europe. I understand that his report will be considered by the Council of Europe later this month.

My hon. Friend brought out particularly well the bleak contrast between the obligations that the Soviet Union and the other countries of Eastern Europe have accepted in various international agreements, and which appear in their constitutions, and the practice that they follow, which means, in effect, that those obligations are rendered null and void.

Despite the considerable pressures that have been brought to bear against believers throughout the Soviet Union over many decades, pressure from below for more religious freedom continued to make itself felt. The election of a Polish Pope has certainly increased interest in religion all over Eastern Europe. It is surely a comment on Communist society, and particularly Soviet society, that young people in the East appear to want to believe even more so than in previous generations and are actively proselytising.

The Government share entirely the very deep concern expressed in this debate about persecution in Eastern Europe of men and women who seek only to profess and practise their religious beliefs free from the restrictions which the authorities seek to impose upon them. The Government take a very close interest in all human rights matters in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and deplore the action being taken against believers, which continues to be widespread.

Whilst the severity of these measures varies from country to country, there can be no doubt that repression has been most blatant in the Soviet Union, whilst discrimination and harassment have been more marked in Czechoslovakia than in most other countries of Eastern Europe. In both these countries such persecution and discrimination is clearly a violation of the right of religious belief expressly laid down in their constitutions and in international agreements to which my hon. Friend referred.

Principle VII of the Helsinki final act clearly states that signatory States will respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion. It goes on to state:
"the participating states will recognise and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practise, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience".
Against the background of these very explicit undertakings in respect of freedom of religion, the countries concerned cannot possibly claim that their action is in any way consistent with their signature of the final act.

Like my hon. Friend, the Government believe that the situation of religious believers in the Soviet Union has, if anything, become worse in recent months. Since last November, when, in our six-monthly report on the implementation of the Helsinki final act in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, we drew attention to the arrest of Father Yakunin, we have witnessed with disturbing frequency the arrest, trial and imprisonment of increasing numbers of prominent memmers of the Orthodox and other faiths.

In January another prominent Orthodox priest, Father Dudko, was arrested; and the founder of a much-harassed unofficial religious seminar, Mr. Ogorodnikov, was not released on completion of an earlier sentence. He is now believed to be facing further and even more serious charges. Another member of his seminar, Mr. Lev Regelson, was arrested in December and Mrs. Tatiana Schipkova, a member arrested earlier last year, was sentenced to three years' hard labour.

Altogether, we understand that about 10 members of this seminar are currently under arrest or sentenced to terms of imprisonment. We will all have been shocked by reports over the weekend that the Soviet authorities, presumably as a prelude to the forthcoming trials, are now branding religious figures as vain and selfish extremists.

Repression within the Soviet Union has continued to be severe against members of those Churches and religious groups which attach particular importance to evangelicalism and freedom from State control, such as the Pentacostalists, Seventh Day Adventists and unregistered Baptists. Nor should we allow ourselves to forget the appalling suffering of those sentenced in the past for their religious beliefs, such as Vladimir Shelkov, head of the unregistered Seventh Day Adventists, who died in a labour camp in January aged 84, or Valeriya Makeeva, who, for the embroidering of religious objects, was indefinitely interned last April to receive so-called "treatment" in a special psychiatric institution.

We are very much aware that for each of the cases that come to our notice because of the particularly blatant repression that they represent there are many hundreds of other cases in the Soviet Union, and also in Czechoslovakia, of ordinary citizens and their families who in one way or another suffer daily discrimination or harassment in their place of work or education for the profession or practice of their religious belief.

Clearly, the Government would like to do all they can to help the many individuals whom they know to be suffering on religious or other grounds in the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries, but experience has shown that a selective approach is necessary if individual representations are to have any impact, and we may not always wish to make public the details of our approaches.

I can say that we have taken opportunities in recent months to convey directly to the Soviet and Czechoslovak authorities at a senior level our concern about respect for human rights and the treatment of certain individuals in their countries. We shall raise further such cases where we judge that our representations will be effective. Moreover, we shall continue, in the run-up to November's Madrid review conference, to press the Soviet Union and Eastern European Governments to implement fully the Helsinki final act, including its human rights provisions, through statements such as our regular reports to the House and at Madrid in the review of implementation, which will be an essential aspect of that meeting.

My hon. Friend made an interesting suggestion of a review commission, and I shall certainly study that suggestion, which deserves careful consideration. As a preliminary comment, I would say that the Government have on the whole been reluctant to add more institutions to the structure of Helsinki because we feel that if that were done without care we would create a structure that would have a large number of committees, and we might detract attention from the main review conferences. Thus, there might even be a danger that the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries would escape their responsibility at these reviews.

It is also right to point out to my hon. Friend that proposals at review conferences can be adopted only by consensus of those present, who number 35 countries. However, he has made an interesting proposal, which has attractions. I have no doubt of its importance and I shall give it study.

Mention of the Madrid review leads me naturally to the subject of human rights violations in general and, in particular, the current wave of arrests in the Soviet Union—50 individuals over the past five months, representing various religious, ethnic and nationalist groups, as well as Helsinki monitors and other human rights activists.

No doubt this campaign can partly be ascribed to official concern that nothing should be allowed to mar the resounding propaganda victory that the Soviet authorities hope to gain from the holding of the Summer Olympics in Moscow. It may also in part reflect a Soviet calculation that East-West relations have so deteriorated following the invasion of Afghanistan that the Soviet authorities have nothing to lose by acting decisively against those who seek to exercise their basic human rights. If this is the view of the Soviet authorities, it is a further demonstration of an utterly cynical attitude towards fundamental humanitarian principles and towards detente.

The Government cannot accept an interpretation of détente in which the fate of individuals is manipulated as a barometer of the state of East-West relations.

In its report to Parliament last November on Soviet and Eastern European implementation, the Government made it clear that the deteriorating human rights situation in Eastern Europe was unlikely to improve the prospects for a successful outcome of the Madrid review meeting. By its recent action against the Afghan people beyond its frontiers and against religious believers and human rights activists at home, the Soviet Union has managed, in the course of only a few weeks, to demonstrate its total disregard not only of the human rights principles but of all the remaining principles of the Final Act.

Against that background, the Government believe that the emphasis at Madrid in November must now shift towards a very thorough review of the implementation of the final act, with reference to all those principles that have been so clearly disregarded.

None the less, the Government do not consider events to have detracted from the ultimate validity and importance of the final act. Indeed, the paradox of Madrid is that though our expectations about the concrete results of the meeting must inevitably be more modest, recent events have made its holding more important and not less. To cancel or postpone Madrid because of what has been happening within the Soviet Union and beyond its borders would be to ignore one essential purpose of such meetings and to nullify the efforts that the West has made since Helsinki to promote an improvement in the performance of their obligations by the countries of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

It is for this reason that we are determined, as things now stand, to go to Madrid and to put before the Soviet Union and other countries, with the greatest clarity, the nature of their responsibilities in matters of human rights, and not least in matters of religious freedom.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past Eleven o'clock.