Lithuania, argues Alexander Lieven, former head of the BBC Eastern European Service.
FR LEONAS MAZHEIKA. a 63-year-old parish priest in Soviet-occupied Lithuania, died last month on his way to hospital from injuries inflicted by unknown assailants.
This is only the latest in a series of reports from that country about unexplained acts of violence directed at Catholics there.
Lithuania, with a population and area comparable to that of the Republic of Ireland, is undeservedly — one of the least known among the countries that lost their independence to the Soviet Union in the course of the last World War. As the southernmost of the so-called Baltic States, bordering on both Poland and what is now Soviet territory but used to be East Prussia, Lithuania is of great strategic importance Co the USSR.
To a greater extent perhaps even than Poland, it has always been — and remains to this day — solidly Catholic. But while the Polish Communist leadership has throughout acknowledged a special place for the Church, the Soviet authorities have done their best during the last forty years or so to freeze it out of existence, The Soviet Constitution explicitly recognises freedom of worship, a fact on which Moscow propaganda lays great — and wholly unjustifiable — stress. In actual practice, permissible religious activities are restricted in so far as the layman is concerned to visiting church, and even this is likely to be treated as a black mark against you if the authorities become aware of it, as they are likely to do.
The teaching of religion, the dissemination of religious information and the organisation of religious activities are all officially banned. On the other hand, antireligious propaganda enjoys the full support of the state in every possible way. This applies to all denominations and creeds, but from a Soviet point of view, Catholicism is in a somewhat special position. It has always been regarded with deep suspicion by the old Russian imperial establishment — many of whose worst traditions the Soviet stale has inherited — as alien, western and subversive. Worse still, its centre lays outside the reach of Russian imperiarpower, and con tinues to do so. •
And so fear, distrust and deep dislike on Moscow's part have made the lot of Lithuanian Catholics drearier still than that of Christians elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Even a totalitarian power as great and ruthless as the USSR cannot. however, entirely stamp out the faith and aspirations of a small nation. The number of priests in the country is half what it had been forty years ago, and many of them are old, but they still serve their parishes. Many churches have been destroyed. and new ones are not allowed to be built, but the faithful meet in barns or simply the open air to hear mass.
A seminary is allowed to teach a small number of theological students in the capital city of Kaunas, admittedly under the very watchful eyes of the authorities. Thus an official recently commented that "occasionally various extremists have tried to gain admittance in order to spread disorder there.