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Forces of Faith In Lithunia

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IN the midst of glasnost, it is worth remembering how the Soviet leadership came to embrace it. Certainly one must credit leadership from the new Soviet team which now shows greater tolerance for dissent and freedom. But it would be unfair to ignore those forces inside Russia that have been opposing oppressive Kremlin regimes for decades. In Lithuania, the Roman Catholic Church has waged a determined campaign against Soviet religious repression since 1940, when the country was forcibly annexed. The Kremlin has used every possible weapon since then to smother nationalism and the Catholic church in Lithuania.

Communist tactics were blunt. Priests were imprisoned, seminaries were infiltrated by students in the KGB, prayer books and church publications were censored and controlled.

Worst of all, churches were confiscated and put to other uses. The St. Casimir church in Vilnius was recast as a Museum of Atheism and filled with empty testimonials to scientific and material progress. The grand cathedral became an art museum.

This small Baltic republic had not witnessed religious control of this severity since the czar imposed the Russian Orthodox religion in the 19th century. At that time, Catholic seminaries were closed, children forced to attend Russian Orthodox services, and no Catholics were allowed to hold public office. Repression relaxed after the 1905 revolution. Until recently, jail or death in Siberian labor camps was the next stop for Lithuanian Catholics who defied Soviet authority.

Yet the Catholic Church in Lithuania persevered and even prospered. The Communist regime came down hard on the Lithuanian church. But, the faithful would not surrender.

Cardinal Vincentas Sladkevicius, the leading prelate in Lithuania, has seen dramatic changes in his homeland during his lifetime. He says that not 10 years ago parents smuggled children into pre-dawn mass hoping to escape the watchful Soviet eye. Young couples forced to marry in ``state wedding chapels'' with pop tunes on the organ and ideological paintings on the wall, would also go to a local church to seek a true blessing. Elderly women going about their business shuffled down the streets of Vilnius while quietly fingering rosary beads beneath their shawls.

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