Billy Graham’s Moscow preaching mission will show this.

Evangelist Billy Graham’s visit next week to a religious conference in the Soviet Union and to two Moscow churches is unprecedented. But beyond that, the news puzzled many North American Christians who tend to assume that the only churches existing in the Communist-controlled USSR must meet secretly.

The reality is that since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union has struggled in vain to liberate itself from the influence of Christianity. John Lawrence, an authority on the Soviet Union, has declared that “the number of believing Christians is now far higher than the number of believing Marxists, and many secret Christians are found in the ranks of the Communist party.” Walter Sawatsky, a scholarly Protestant observer of the Soviet church situation, estimates that weekly church attendance in the USSR is “at least four to five times higher than in Great Britain—that is, at least 20 percent of the Soviet population remains actively Christian.”

It is estimated that half of the 268 million Soviet citizens are nonreligious. But 11 percent are Muslim; Jews and Buddhists account for another 2 percent; and a full 100 million, or about 37 percent, are Christian. Of these, slightly more than 70 million are aligned with the Russian Orthodox church. The balance consists of Armenian Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants.

The Communist authorities therefore take an if-you-can’t-lick-’em-join-’em approach, seeking to manipulate and restrict the church rather than to stamp it out. Protestant response to this policy has divided the Protestant churches into two major camps: those registered with the authorities and belonging to the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, and those affiliated with the church organization that has refused to register and is therefore illegal and overtly persecuted. This group is called the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. The registered body will have delegates at the conference Graham is attending; the unregistered body neither could nor would.

Because of its historic and numerical dominance, the Russian Orthodox church is the main avenue through which the Council on Religious Affairs for the Central Committee of the Communist party seeks to regulate believers.

State control of the Orthodox church actually preceded the revolution in 1917. Peter the Great in 1721 managed to convert the church administration into a subdepartment of the state.

Paul D. Anderson, editor emeritus of Religion in Communist Dominated Areas (RCDA), last year wrote in that journal: “It is plain that the churches [except the unregistered churches] in the USSR are now working parts of the Soviet system, joining with all the other civil organizations in defending the socialist system. Through their delegates to international church conferences they have supported Soviet policies and resisted efforts of foreign churches to point out evidence of lack of freedom to carry on church work within internationally recognized norms of principle and practice, or to raise a Christian voice in national affairs.” He points out that their cooperation nets believers very little in return. “We know of no Christian having been elected or appointed to a local or national soviet [administrative council], although the patriarch is invited to formal state receptions on great public holidays.”

Government manipulation of the Russian Orthodox church is best documented by a 1975 secret “Report on the Russian Orthodox Church,” written by a deputy chairman of the Council on Religious Affairs for the Central Committee of the Communist party. A copy of it was smuggled to the West and recently translated into English by RCDA.

The report confirms that the agenda of synod deliberations and appointment of its members are cleared in advance with the council. It lists the ruling bishops under three categories: (1) those who are loyal, abide by the regulations, and do not attempt to expand the role of religion, (2) the loyal and law abiding who nevertheless attempt to activate the church and increase its role, and (3) those who attempt to evade the laws on cults (meaning religions).

This is the second time that the Russian Orthodox church has sponsored an interreligious conference. (The first, in 1977, dealt with broader aspects of disarmament.) The unwieldy official title that has emerged is “Religious Workers for Saving the Sacred Gift of Life from a Nuclear Catastrophe.”

Those invited—including about 25 from the United States—were invited as individuals and not as official representatives of denominations or other organizations. The invitation response form allowed each person to choose whether he wished to attend as a delegate or as an observer. Attending as an observer—as Billy Graham elected to do—maintains a kind of neutrality about the conference and a distance from its outcome. But while observers may speak out in the conference, only delegates may register official votes, allowing them formally to express disfavor as well as approval of an item in a conference document.

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The conference is expected to draft a letter to the religious communities, a letter to governments, and a letter to the second special session of the United Nations. It may also appoint a delegation to the UN session, which is to deal with disarmament issues.

Given the Russian Orthodox sponsorship of the conference (and therefore indirect Soviet involvement), why would Western religious figures want to participate?

Bruce Rigdon, professor of church history at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, explained in an interview why he is going as a delegate:

“Participation in that conference does not mean on anybody’s part approval of everything that has to do with church-state relations or policies in the Soviet Union or anywhere else in Eastern Europe. It is, as I understand it, to be a gathering with one major issue in front of it, and that’s the issue of the possibility of nuclear holocaust and the necessity of nuclear disarmament.”

Rigdon said he agreed with the preparatory committee’s decision to limit the subject of the conference documents to the nuclear sphere. He said, however, that the preparatory committee had agreed that participants who wanted to talk about the rights of dissidents and other issues would be provided informal contexts in which to “come together and talk with one another to see what would happen.”

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