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Destroying churches and religion. History sheds light on the Soviet plan in Eastern Europe.

Fr Jan Mikrut, Professor at the Gregorian University in Rome, is the author of “The Catholic Church and Communism”, the first of a set of publications that investigate on Stalinist repression of Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims. The need to “come to terms with the past” for a veritable reconciliation at national level, as well as between religious communities and political institutions.

“Stalinism propounded the superiority of secular power over that of the Church, the imposition of an atheistic vision of the world to the whole population and the instrumental use of legislation against the Church”, remarked Fr Jan Mikrut, Professor of History and Cultural Heritage of the Church at the Gregorian University in Rome, curator of the book “The Catholic Church and Communism” (published by Gabrielli). The lengthy volume, prefaced by Cardinal Miroslav Vlk, is the first of a series dedicated to the history of the Church in Central and Eastern Europe. “Until the responsibilities are recognized, we cannot speak of the past nor of forgiveness”, said the Secretary of the Congregation for Eastern Churches Monsignor Cyril Vasil’, who presented the book at the University a few days ago, focusing on the complex relationship between justice and Christian forgiveness towards a regime whose goal was the destruction of the Churches and of religion as a whole.

How did the idea of the series come about?
There are many documents and studies – said Fr Mikrut – dedicated to the persecutions of the Catholic Church in various Countries, all in different languages and thus hard to access. The editorial project consists of two more volumes that will be published in the course of the year. The second volume will be dedicated to the testimonies of Christians, while the third will centre on the history of the Catholic Church in territories of the Soviet Union.

How did Communist repression of Catholics begin?
At a Conference held in Poland September 1947, bringing together all Communist Parties, the Russian representative

Andriej Zdanov presented a plan for the elimination of the Catholic Church in all Countries of the Soviet Bloc.

His project, based on the Soviet model enforced in the USSR in the 1920s, consisted in the destruction of all Church hierarchies and of the most pre-eminent priests and lay Catholics. The first phase envisaged the arrest of the bishops, thereby eliminating Church guidance, and isolating the figures of reference of the faithful. At the same time it was necessary to create lay groups of collaborators that were loyal to the regime and enemies of Church hierarchy. The Greek-Catholic Church in the entire Soviet zone was to be integrated within the structures of the Orthodox Church, which occurred in Slovakia in 1950.

How was this model eventually adapted to the different situations at national level?
The Soviet annexation policy shattered Europe’s ancient structure: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, along with the Eastern territories of Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldavia, were incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1945, thereby losing their independence, while Czechoslovakia, Hungary and East Germany (DDR) became satellite States.

The gravity of the Soviet repression against the Church depended on the place where the Christian community lived.

While on the external borders of the Soviet Union there still was room to express independence, at times even a certain degree of resistance, within the Soviet Union repression was practised with acts of violence, which made opposition practically impossible. In Poland, where the hardest phase of Stalinist persecution lasted a relatively short amount of time, by 1953 12 bishops were arrested or had to leave their dioceses, 4 priests convicted by the courts were executed, while 37 were killed without a sentence, 260 were reported missing, 1,000 arrested, 350 displaced in various parts of the country and 1,200 had to leave the parishes.

Was the situation different in Countries whose government had collaborated with the Third Reich during the Second World War?
In Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, Church persecutions began immediately after the end of the war with the pretence of combating a common enemy that was hostile to the entire population. Already in 1946, with the first trial against the archbishop of Zagreb Alojzije Stepinac, Yugoslavian Communists tried to separate the Croatian Church from Rome to create a national Church.

Along with the Catholic Church, also the Orthodox Church suffered persecutions.

Perhaps the most tragic case was that of Albania, where all religious communities, Christians and Muslims alike, were persecuted with greater cruelty and violence than in other Countries.

In your opinions, did the means employed by the Communist regime succeed in destroying the Catholic Church?
In some cases they did. For example, in Estonia everything was destroyed. A church is still standing in Tallin and another one in the same district. Very few Catholics live there today, most of them are foreigners. Moreover, in Estonia there is a very active Orthodox Church for the Russian population, their Russian identity coincides with being Orthodox. Under Communism the clandestine Catholic Church in the Czech Republic was a vibrant Church, whence came Cardinal Miroslav Vlk and Dominik Duka. Nonetheless, today the Country appears to be the victim of widespread materialism. It is very likely that the community of faithful never recovered from the persecutions.

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