Commission Appeals for Amnesty for Believers, New Crackdown Reported
MOSCOW (AP) _ An official human rights commission called on the government to release Soviets jailed for violating laws limiting religious activity and said most of the prisoners have embraced Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s reforms.
At the same time, religious activists in the western Ukraine reported a new crackdown on the banned Ukrainian Catholic Church, which operates underground.
In its appeal Tuesday, the Commission on International Cooperation on Humanitarian Questions and Human Rights said: ″It seems to us that today these people do not represent any social danger for our society. We propose that it would be an act of great humane meaning to forgive them.″
No figures were available on how many prisoners might be affected. In a report on the appeal, the official Tass news agency said such an amnesty would affect only a few people.
It likely would not affect most of the 200 people who religious activists estimate were convicted under different laws and remain jailed or exiled.
The appeal to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet did not touch on the strictest laws governing religious activity, which require registration of religious groups, sharply limit religious education and prohibit charitable activity.
The appeal concerned those convicted under two articles of Soviet law: one on violations of the separation of church and state, which carries a maximum one-year sentence, and one against directing religious activities judged to be harmful to others, which carries a maximum five years in prison or exile.
The commission, headed by prominent journalist Fyodor Burlatsky, said the ″majority of believers have accepted ‘perestroika’ and have made a significant contribution to realizing plans for the social-economic development of the country. All this testifies to the new approach to government-church relations in the era of ‘perestroika’ and democratization of Soviet society.″
″Perestroika″ is the term Gorbachev uses to describe his wide-ranging economic, political and social reform program.
Ivan Gel, a member of a committee seeking legalization of the Ukrainian Catholic church, said in a telephone interview from Lvov that a police crackdown began in the western Ukraine after several church services attracted thousands of people in July.
″There is without a doubt a sharp increase in pressure on the church, and not only on the church but on the whole society,″ he said.
Police have broken up some religious services, prevented rural residents from reaching other villages for services and levied heavy fines on unauthorized services, he said.
Because officials have refused to recognize the church, it does not have permission to hold services.
Authorities regard the services as violations of the law against unauthorized gatherings and warned church groups they face a maximum $480 fine for their first offense and up to $1,600 for a second, Gel said.
Gel said up to 20,000 people gathered in a village of the Ternopol region July 17 to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of the coming of Christianity to the Ukraine. Six days later, about 5,000 people gathered for a service devoted to the victims of Stalinism, he said.
Much of the western Ukraine was outside Soviet territory until after World War II, when the nation’s border expanded. The Ukrainian Catholic Church was forcibly united with the Orthodox Church and officially ceased to exist.
Activists say several million believers remain in the western Ukraine.