U.S. Rep. Steve Bartlett says he learned a new buzz word during a seven-day human rights mission to the Soviet Union in late June and early July: “forest Christians,” a.k.a. Soviet citizens who worship in the forest instead of in government-registered churches to escape unrelenting harassment by Soviet officials.

Forest Christians meet in secret so they can teach their children their faith. For parents, that’s a crime punishable by imprisonment, he says.

“It’s not illegal to worship in the Soviet Union, but it might as well be,” Bartlett says. Nevertheless, Bartlett says he heard about and occasionally witnessed a strong underground religious revival of the Protestant, Jewish and Catholic faiths- particularly among young people. “There’s a saying in Russia that only old women go to church, but they’ve been saying that since 1917.”

Bartlett says he learned that attendance at evening Easter worship services is strongly discouraged by the government and that the KGB (Soviet secret police) takes the names of those who attend. (It’s also not unusual for popular one-run American movies to be scheduled for the same night.) This past Easter, Bartlett was told, thousands of Christians showed their faith (and their fear) by holding lighted candles and standing outside the churches, out of reach of the KGB agents taking names.

A woman Bartlett met told him that “officially” she was an atheist. “Later she broke down and confessed she goes to church,” he says. He adds that worshipers believe their church services are bugged.

Bartlett says it appeared to him that repression in the Soviet Union is as rampant as it has ever been. “Big Brother is alive and well. We were treated courteously and were allowed to visit Moscow and Leningrad. But we were followed or escorted by Soviet officials everywhere we went.” He says American embassy families told him they quickly learned to hold personal discussions or family arguments in the privacy of a local park or on the sidewalk. “The KGB will learn about your private lives and use the information to bribe or embarrass you,” he was told.

The congressman and his group were invited to the homes of Russians who have applied to the Soviet government for exit visas. “They told us that once they apply for a visa bad things start to happen to them, like they are fired from their jobs or their kids are kicked out of school. They weren’t afraid to talk to us because there was little else that could be done to them.”

Bartlett says he has no immediate plans to return to the Soviet Union. “The first feeling one has when leaving the Soviet Union is one of enormous relief and gratitude for having the freedoms that we have in this country.


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