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Vatican Officials Meet Underground Church Leaders

June 11, 1988

MOSCOW (AP) _ A 90-minute meeting with two high-level Vatican officials gave the underground Ukrainian Catholic Church ″much hope and strength,″ one of its lay leaders said.

Also Friday, the 1,000th anniversary of Russian Christendom was marked with a gala at the Bolshoi Theater attended by Raisa Gorbachev, wife of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. American evangelist Billy Graham and Rabbi Arthur Schneier, head of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation of New York, were among the speakers.

The meeting and the appearance of the Soviet leader’s wife at a religious event underscored the changing attitude of the Communist Party, which is officially atheist.

The meeting of Vatican and Ukrainian clergymen at a Moscow hotel, the first official one since Soviet leader Josef Stalin crushed the church more than 40 years ago, was kept quiet by both sides.

″The meeting was very warm and fruitful. It gave us much hope and strength,″ said Ivan Gel, a lay leader of the Ukrainian Catholic Church who accompanied the church delegation to the hotel.

Members of the delegation said two bishops and three priests of the Ukrainian Catholic Church met at the hotel with two cardinals from the Vatican: Secretary of State Agostino Casaroli and Johannes Willebrands, head of the Secretariat for Christian Unity.

Gel said previous contacts were informal, at lower levels, and Friday’s meeting would not have been possible without the reforms Gorbachev is making in Soviet society.

It lasted 90 minutes, three times longer than scheduled, Gel said.

Vatican officials would not talk about the meeting. Members of the Ukrainian delegation canceled a news conference, saying they had promised not to discuss it further and were returning to the Ukraine later Friday.

No information was available about whether Pope John Paul II addressed the issue of Ukrainian Catholics in a letter to Gorbachev brought by Casaroli, the No. 2 Vatican official.

Religious groups must be registered with the government, which puts strict limits on the practice of religion. Officials have not recognized Ukrainian Catholic groups, making their religious services illegal.

Officials say the Ukrainian Catholic Church numbers 4-5 million believers, primarily in the western Ukraine. It was forcibly assimilated into the Russian Orthodox Church in 1946 when Stalin consolidated his control over lands captured at the end of World War II.

Gel said 11 bishops were imprisoned under Stalin and only three survived to carry on the consecration of other bishops and priests.

Bishops Safron Kurchaba and Pavlo Vasilik led the Ukrainian Church delegation to the meeting Friday, said Gel, who did not attend although he accompanied the group to the Sovietskaya Hotel.

The Russian Orthodox Church opposes recognition of the Ukrainian church but has said it will discuss the issue with Vatican representatives in Finland later this month.

Others at the Bolshoi said Mrs. Gorbachev, dressed in a gray suit and red blouse, sat in the front row of about 80 church and government dignitaries.

Schneier said Mrs. Gorbachev blushed when he turned from the audience, faced her and said, alluding to the biblical story of creation:

″You have been a trusted and devoted helpmate to your husband. Your presence here is more than symbolic. It shows that as his helpmate you are in sympathy with his cause and in support of his pronouncements on the rights of believers.″

Graham said he was ″encouraged by reports that there is a new readiness on the part of both churches and the state to face the mistakes of the past, and to seek together to find new ways of expanding the religious rights and opportunities of believers and religious groups within the framework of your socialist society,″ according to a text of his remarks.

Patriarch Pimen, head of the Russian Orthodox church, called Gorbachev a ″tireless architect of perestroika and a herald of new political thinking,″ the official news agency Tass reported.

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