Freedom to worship

Many religions are practised in Europe. But whatever your religion – whether as mainstream as Christianity or as left-field as Pastafarianism – we have the freedom to practise whichever religion we choose. This right is enshrined in law. While antagonism between people of different faiths undeniably takes place, for the most part we respect one another’s beliefs and live side by side in harmony.

But this wasn’t always the case. In the days of the Soviet Union, communism and religion were in conflict. As with many other areas of daily life under communist rule, the official position differed greatly from what actually happened. Freedom of religion was included in the constitutions of communist countries, but in practice the state imposed strict restrictions on religious expression.

So why was religion viewed as such a threat?

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people,” Karl Marx famously said.

Marx, the grandfather of communism, argued religion was a comfort blanket for those who weren’t happy in this world. It caused people to accept their current miserable condition in exchange for better prospects in the afterlife.

After the Russian revolution in 1917, Lenin came to power and sought to abolish religion altogether. His successors, most notably Stalin, continued the job, by targeting, imprisoning and, in many cases, murdering religious figures who they deemed a danger to society.

During one of Stalin’s purges in 1937, 106,000 Orthodox clergy were shot and over 400 Catholic priests were executed, murdered or tortured to death, as well as 900 nuns, monks and laypeople. At that time the Catholic Church had 1,200 places of worship. After the purge it was left with two, with the rest being turned into farm buildings, public toilets, warehouses and shops.

Following the end of World War II, if you happened to live in one of the countries that now fell under the iron rule of Soviet Russia, being openly religious was often a death sentence. Catholic leaders in these countries who refused to remain silent in the face of tyranny were denounced, publicly humiliated or thrown into prison. Religious schools were closed, and many churches and other religious buildings were turned into museums of atheism.

Not only were children taught atheism in school, but under Khrushchev – who led the Soviet Union for 10 years from 1953 – teaching your own children about religion became illegal. The state became fanatical about eradicating religion from every walk of life.

The state became fanatical about eradicating religion from every walk of life.

Many religions are practised in Europe. But whatever your religion – whether as mainstream as Christianity or as left-field as Pastafarianism – we have the freedom to practise whichever religion we choose. This right is enshrined in law. While antagonism between people of different faiths undeniably takes place, for the most part we respect one another’s beliefs and live side by side in harmony.

We usually think of Nazi Germany when we hear concentration camps being talked about, but after the war, governments of Eastern bloc countries used them to imprison and murder Christian clergy and ordinary people who were simply following their faith. In Hungary at the Recsk and Kistarcsa camps, thousands of Christians were murdered. Governments in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania also came down heavily on all organised religion.

Perhaps surprisingly, however, the Soviets made an exception for one religion, which emerged relatively unscathed from the regime’s purges – Islam. At first glance it’s hard to know why they turned a blind eye to practising Muslims within the Soviet Union, but there was one group of countries who the Soviets needed to keep on side, and they were in the Middle East.

Why? The Soviets believed the support of these countries was vital in their goal of bringing Western capitalism to its knees. They risked alienating these countries if they harassed the Muslim population in Southern Russia, so Islam was given special treatment. Muslims were allowed to become members of the Communist Party, while members of the Orthodox church were not, and the authorities even allowed Muslims to observe Friday as a day of rest.

Throughout the Cold War, religion became a persistent headache to the authorities, and despite all their efforts to stop people worshiping, they couldn’t. In the late eighties, that headache turned into an almighty migraine, as places of worship had a pivotal role in mobilising people to protest peacefully against the authoritarian regimes.

Real people: Cardinal Wojtyła

In 1978, Cardinal Wojtyła of Krakow, Poland, became Pope John Paul II. Despite all the State’s efforts, throughout communist rule the country had remained staunchly Catholic, and now one of their own had become Pope.

The following year he visited his home country, and despite the government’s best efforts to play down his visit, over 13 million Poles turned out to greet him.

His message – that Christianity (not Marxism) was the route to true human freedom – resonated with his followers. Pope John Paul II went on to tirelessly petition Western governments about religious oppression in the East and was a pivotal figure in the fall of communism 10 years later.


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