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Labor Action, 218 February 1949


William Barton

Stalinist War on Church in East
Is Not Over Religion but Power


From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 9, 28 February 1949, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The center of the current conflict between the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and their church opposition this week shifted to Bulgaria as two church leaders, one from the Methodist and the other from the Congregationalist Church, were reported to have “confessed” to “espionage” and illegal currency operations.

Last week we indicated that the arrest and trial of the various churchmen in Eastern Europe is not so much a conflict over religious beliefs and practices as a campaign by the totalitarian rulers to upset possible rival social forces. The truth of this contention is borne out by the introduction in the Bulgarian Parliament by Foreign Minister Kolarov of a bill that would close all foreign religious orders, missions and congregations, and declare that the Greek Orthodox Church is the “only people’s democratic church.”

Actually, the church census of 1934 lists the total number of all Protestants in Bulgaria as 8,731, compared to five million members of the Greek Orthodox Church. The rival churches, unlike the Catholic Church in Hungary, for instance, have thus never had much power. Their suppression is another attempt by the frightened leaders of the totalitarian regime to upset any possible centers of opposition.

The more serious furor over the conviction of Hungarian Cardinal Mindszenty continues with the same volume as last week. The Hungarian government has apparently won the first round, as Hungarian bishops are reputed to be considering a letter from the imprisoned cardinal urging “an agreement” with the regime. But the incitement of anti-Stalinist fervor by. the powerful Catholic Church hierarchy on its side of the cold war is becoming greater. The Pope addressed an assemblage of some 200,000 people in St. Peter’s, setting his tone at “no compromise.” In New York, thousands of children have participated in public prayer demonstrations. Fourteen Washington lawyers, led by former Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thurman Arnold, attacked the Mindszenty trial as a “brazen attempt” to prostitute the judicial process.

Although much of this indignation is not only consciously associated with Western propaganda efforts in the cold war, but paints as well the Catholic hierarchy in glowing colors as defenders of freedom, this is not universally true. Interestingly, many Protestant clergyman have used the occasion to point out to Catholics that they are now protesting the same treatment that the church has approved against others. A sermon by Brooklyn Baptist Minister Rev. Robert McCaul queried: “It is right that we should recoil from religious persecution, but why see it in Russia and be blind to it in Spain?”

The issue is not religion but power. The Catholic Church is too serious a “foreign” threat in Eastern Europe to be allowed much independence. The various small Protestant groups may not have many adherents, but they are likewise potential dangers, especially since they have so many “foreign connections.” A controlled church can be very useful to the Stalinist totalitarians, as has been true for the Eastern Orthodox Churches in many countries. But a rival focus of allegiance and organization (to which people can adhere as a channel of protest) cannot be tolerated.

A New York Times dispatch quotes the Albanian newspaper Politka as admitting that Albanians are subsisting on a near starvation diet containing mostly beans, that food prices have skyrocketed 250 to 500 per cent in the past eight months, that cadets at a national military academy have openly rebelled because of their poor meals. The accounts of such events in the smallest of the Russian satellites is a far better explanation of current news from Eastern Europe than accusations of spy rings or papal references to the days of Nero’s Rome.

The Eastern European regimes fear their people. They have got to direct popular resentment elsewhere and prevent organized opposition. That, plus the need to get in some propaganda licks for its side in the cold war, are the nub of the drive against the “foreign-led” churchmen.

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