Orthodox America

  The Cry of the New Martyrs -  Where are the Churches

Religion is like salt which protects humanity form decomposition and disintegration. Any attempt to banish it from social life invariably leads to the degradation of society.  Fr. Gleb Yakunin 

An interview with Fr. Gleb Yakunin and Fr. Georgi Edelstein, July 22, 1989 

(Continued from previous issues)

Part I
Part II

OA: The latest issue of Nadezhda contains an article about Schema-archimandrite Lavrenty, who foresaw the opening and renovation of churches which we see taking

place today. He warned, however, that soon thereafter Antichrist would take over these churches and advised that more attention be paid to developing the inner life. How important is the opening of new churches... ?


Fr. Gleb: The development of spiritual life cannot be achieved without the opening of churches. A small community could perhaps exist [clandestinely], but in order for the Church to lead a full-blooded life and to draw many faithful into the fold, it must be open and exist legally. Obviously the government wouldn't allow the Church an independent, underground existence. If the Church were to exist illegally and in such circumstances were to endure persecution by the State's apparatus of repression--a very powerful apparatus---it could not survive. We know that there is a Catacomb Church, there is a group calling themselves the True Orthodox, but these are not large. If we are to speak of the evangelization of the whole country, we must raise the question of the freedom to preach and the open existence of the Church.

      Concerning the danger that the Church will fall into the hands of Antichrist, we see many such prophecies in the Apocalypse. There it is said that the Church of Laodicea will fall away from Christ (Rev. 3:14). We know that Antichrist will try to take over churches, but we do not know exactly when this will happen; it has not been revealed to us. Furthermore, we believe that the grace of God is present in a church, and therefore it is necessary to strive for the opening of churches. That is one of our aims in the movement for the defense of human rights. We call upon all Christians to fight for the freedom of the Church. A free Church will struggle against those trials and temptations which await her. It was never easy for the Church. Before the Edict of Milan (325), before the legalization of the Church, before the recognition of a state Church, when it was still in the catacombs, it was also faced with trials; the danger of powerful heresies threatened to tear the Church from the true path. Therefore, we must struggle both for the freedom of the Church and for the opening of churches.


Fr. Georgi: Let's think for a moment. We have in Siberia places where you can travel for hundreds of miles, and not a single church. People cannot baptize their children; people die and there is no one to serve their funerals. These people are Christian. Of course we must do whatever we can so that they wouldn't be deprived of Christian baptism, confession, Holy Communion.

      It has been a month since Fr. Gleb and I left Russia, a month since we last served [the Divine Liturgy], a month since we partook of the Holy Mysteries. This is very difficult for us. Now just imagine the state of a person who hasn't received Holy Communion for seven, ten years.

      It’s easy to say that it's not necessary to spent one's energies in trying to open new churches, that it's more important to concentrate simply on the inner life. Yes, this is important. But Christianity is always a paradox. And if we begin to make distinctions, this is more important, this is less important-then what is more important, the letter or the spirit? Everyone knows that, of course, the spirit, that the letter kills while the spirit gives life. On this basis heretics draw a simple conclusion: 'This means there is no need for Holy Scripture. I am,a spiritual Christian. I pray in the spirit. Why do I need the Church? Why do I need the Scriptures if I have received the Holy Spirit?" The same applies here. What is more important, let's say, faith or works? A simple question. Apostle James says one thing and Apostle Paul another. There are many such seeming contradictions in the Bible. Christianity, however, is an entity; one can never say: this is more important, while that is less important. Both are important to Christianity.

      It is the same here. Is it necessary to work for the opening of churches? Yes, it is necessary, because we must carry the light of Christ into all the world, including those places where people have not heard the Word of God. And in Russia there are many such places. Here in San Francisco there are more Orthodox churches than we have in cities of a million people. There we have one, two churches, that's all. And of this million, a minimum of half, or let's say 200,000, want to go to church, want to baptize their children. Where will these 200,000 people fit if they all come, say on Pascha? Even if it's only 50,000--the absolute minimum. Can they fit in three small churches? And what if there is only one church? Is it fair, then, to say, "It's not necessary to build churches there. It's better if we simply worked on inner perfection"? We shouldn't make such a distinction.

      Second. Do not be taken in by Soviet propaganda. The Soviet propaganda machine is so powerful that it deceives everyone: it will deceive you, it will deceive a senator, it will deceive the president. Don't think that President Roosevelt was a fool and that enabled Stalin to lead him by the nose, or that Eleanor Roosevelt was a fool when she came to observe conditions in the labor camps, and that today we are smarter. No, today they will deceive us just as they deceived people forty and fifty years ago. They say: A thousand churches have been opened in the Soviet Union. We are overjoyed: "That's great! Perestroika! But here in my briefcase I have the latest issue of Moscow News, July 19. A headline reads: "First Church Opens in Siberia."

      Where did they get the number '1,000'? One must know what questions to ask. Where are these newly opened churches?

      Even if this isn't the first church to be opened in Siberia, Siberia needs several thousand churches. When we are told that a thousand churches have been opened, we should ask, "Where? Show me a map and put dots in places where churches have been opened." The overwhelming majority of these churches have been opened in western Ukraine where there were already many churches. They are opened in villages where there are relatively few believers, to serve as 'fortresses" against the Catholic-Uniates. That is the primary reason they have been opened. Again, the motivation is political.

Believers in Ivanovo have been conducting a hunger strike for several months. Will they succeed in having the church restored to them? The city council has decreed that the church not be returned to the Orthodox believers. In Gorky the people have been demanding for decades: "Give us a church." It's a large, industrial city with a population well over a million. The authorities refuse. In Novosibirsk, Metropolitan Gideon (a hierarch of some influence) has been asking, the believers have been asking, the priests... The authorities refuse. Over and over one hears the same story, Why? Because the government always was atheist and remains atheist, because the Church in the Soviet Union is not free. Fr. Gleb is right to correct me here: the government is not atheist, it is militantly anti-theist. Its principal aim was and still is-to crush the Church. If it is politically expedient for them to open a church they will do so; if not, they will not allow it.

       Therefore, when they say, "A thousand churches have been opened in our country," don't be fooled. This is a means of deception. Statistics are used to fabricate the most audacious lies. As the saying goes: "There is falsehood, there is audacious blatant falsehood, and, finally, there is statistics." Remember that deception is best facilitated through the use of numbers Be very careful of Soviet propaganda. Don't be caught by their bait. They will fool you as they did Roosevelt.

       So, today it is just as difficult for believers, or very nearly as difficult, to open a church in their city as it was years ago. You must understand this. 

     Let us take a more positive note. For seventy years you have been praying that the 'Lord would enlighten the wicked godless ones in our government, For seventy years we, too, have been praying. And I think that this perestroika or restructuring that our country is undergoing today is a direct result of our common prayer. Because in this cry to God, in this prayer, we were always united with you. We prayed that Orthodox Rus' would again become Orthodox, as it was and as it can only be. Other forms of government have not been considered. If this nation located on this territory loses Orthodoxy, it will become another nation, because a nation cannot exist only as a economic or geographical entity; it is, in the first place, a spiritual entity. And the spirituality of this country is Orthodox. Our whole culture is Orthodox.

      Let us suppose for a minute that the majority of our people were Krishnaites. We would have a different country, with a different culture; it would be completely different. Orthodoxy is our history, our literature, our music, our architecture. It is all Orthodox. Take the history of our architecture and you will see, first of all, Orthodox churches. Take the history of painting, and you will find icons. Later, of course, one comes to portraiture and the influence of the West... But basically what you have is a Christian world-view. If you take literature you find either the acceptance of Christ or resistance to Christ, disputation, but in the center there is always Christ-whether we want this or not. By contrast, the Baghavat Gita or Makhatkharatka reveal a completely different world view.

      Returning, then, to what I said earlier. If today we are undergoing perestroika, this is the fruit of our common prayer. We should not think, however, that victory has been won. No, we cannot afford to lessen our prayers. Rather, we should intensify them. The first small shoots have appeared, barely, barely, but they can quickly wither. Today especially our country is in need of prayer. True, there are some encouraging signs. Sitting before you is Father Gleb, who three years ago was in a labor camp and then in exile; today he was given permission to travel abroad. It wasn't so long ago that no one was allowed to go abroad. We were recently at a Congress for evangelization in Manilla as part of a group of over sixty representatives from Russia: there were Baptists, Pentacostals... Never, in seventy' years. was such a large group given permission to travel abroad. There were some obstacles, but nevertheless the group did go and we were able to speak. This means there is something new. But these are still only tiny shoots. That is, one cannot say that nothing has changed; this would be a lie. But neither can one exult in a total victory; that would be no less of a lie. It is very important to understand that a certain result has been achieved and we must see that we continue on this path.

       Fr. Gleb and I would like to add--it is something we have discussed together many times-that it is very painful for us to acknowledge the division in the Russian Orthodox Church. It is our mutual profound conviction that the Church cannot be divided, because Christ is one and the Church is the Body of Christ. It is painful for us to acknowledge that we have lost liturgical communion. And we believe that there is no longer any basis for this division, because if we were to initiate an open and honest discussion... Do you recognize that the 1927 Declaration of Metropolitan Sergius was a false declaration? Yes, you do. Do we? Certainly. If we were to speak seriously about this Declaration we could perhaps explain why he was forced.. This is a different question. But that it was false, yes, we agree.

       Second. Did we have martyrs and confessors? It is repeatedly said that we did not, that everyone who was sentenced was sentenced for counterrevolutionary activity. This claim was made until quite recently. But today it is openly admitted: Yes, many clergy were arrested simply because they were religious activists, simply because they confessed the name of Jesus Christ--this is martyrdom.

       And, finally, a third point: the question of the "legality" of the hierarchy of the Church Abroad. Why is this a more difficult question to resolve than the first two? This means we must sit down together and think of how to reestablish liturgical communion. I think that the only obstacle in our path--and Fr. Gleb agrees with me-- is our government, the orders from "above". Our hierarchs? They are simply afraid.

       We firmly believe that if developments in Russia continue on the same path, God will surely grant that in the very near future the Orthodox Russian Church, which has suffered so much both within and outside Russia, will become one as it was at the beginning of the century. I think that this should be our main hope. There is no greater task facing us today.