Delegation to Soviets: Release Christian dissident prisoners

DE BURGHT, Holland – A direct request was made to Soviet authorities for the release of Soviet Christians imprisoned for their faith at the first international consultation of “Human Rights and International Cooperation” in January, attended by unofficial representatives of thirteen countries, including the Soviet Union and the United States. Delegates included former First Lady Rosalyn Carter, a number of congressmen, and various religious leaders.

The Soviet delegation agreed to examine a list of 250 known religious prisoners convicted under laws of “religious activity” presented by U.S. Congressmen Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Chris Smith (R-NJ). The list was accepted by Soviet delegate Yuri Smirnov, a member of the Council on Religious Affairs and the U.S.S.R. Council of Ministers, but Western delegates were reminded that the Soviets hold a different view on the religious prisoners issue. “Many prisoners on your list are criminals who are also religious people trying to find a defense on religious grounds,” said Fedor Burlatsky, chairman of the recently formed Soviet Commission on Humanitarian Problems and Human Rights and expert advisor to Mikhail Gorbachev during the Geneva, Reykjavik, and Washington summits.

Though the three-day meeting was cordial and non-confrontive, Western delegates continued to press the Soviets for action regarding religious prisoners. In the final hours of the De Burght consultation, Western delegates proposed that the final communique on the conference include a statement indicating the West’s desire to see a complete amnesty for religious prisoners on the occasion of the millennial celebration. The motion was followed by heated debate on both sides and was finally withdrawn by the U.S. delegates upon assurance by the Soviet delegation that the issue would be discussed in Moscow immediately following their return and a report on the status of each prisoner would be released soon.

The cause of religious prisoners in the Soviet Union and the basic right to worship without government control or intervention were major issues of concern to the delegates present at the consultation.

Although the dialogue between the East and West was intended to find areas of mutual understanding on a broad range of human rights-related issues, including terrorism, unemployment, and environmental problems, it was the issue of religious freedom as a basis for all human rights that clearly divided the West from the East, according to an Open Doors News Service report.

Former First Lady Rosalyn Carter, a member of the U.S. delegation and keynote speaker, said, “[Religious freedom] is an elementary right which no government can violate.” This elicited a charged response from Fedor Burlatsky, a Soviet advisor, who cited “civil and political rights” without which “each individual cannot hope for improved working conditions and [there can be] no betterment of human economic standards.” He accused the American government of focusing too much on individual rights related to social problems and said, “Americans will not take up the burden for millions of unemployed individuals.”

Burlatsky’s failure to make any mention of religious rights in his speech was cited by several Western delegates, including Lutheran clergyman Richard Neuhaus, who commented that without the presence of religious rights a government cannot expect to have long-term survival. “We must not speak of every human problem as a human rights problem,” he said, quoting excerpts from Carter’s speech. “The problems of homelessness are not human rights problems.”

At a press conference following the conclusion of the De Burght consultation, Andrei Grachev, section leader of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, said,“Rather than declaring an amnesty for 18 or 200 individuals,” the intention of the Soviet authorities was that in the future “no innocent person, in the East or West, would be persecuted for his beliefs, including religious beliefs.”

Burlatsky said in his final remarks to journalists that the conference was a “manifestation of the triumph of the spirit of constructiveness, the spirit of searching for mutually acceptable solutions and the spirit of concessions, … We listened attentively to expressions … on the problem of human rights addressed to the Soviet Union on the part of Western countries and the United States.” He described the conference as a commission which consisted of “enthusiasts who would like to work … for the deepening of glasnost in the Soviet Union and for consistent implementation of human rights in the Soviet Union.”

Members of the Western delegation expressed more restraint in their evaluation on the conference. Congressman Chris Smith said he was encouraged by the “one-on-one contact with key players” of the Soviet delegation over the three-day period. “I believe we had moments of real dialogue [with the Soviets]; it wasn’t just an exercise in rhetoric. Expectations are that something good will come out of it.”

The De Burght consultation, organized by Dutch businessman, Ernst van Eeghen, and Landrum Bolling, president of the Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, was also sponsored by several European evangelical mission groups, including Open Doors International and Christian Solidarity, which are noted for their work on behalf of Christians in the Soviet Union and other restricted countries.

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