Word Magazine May 1964 Page 9-10
“TWENTIETH CENTURY MARTYRS”
A sermon preached on Orthodoxy Sunday, March 22nd, 1964, at St. Nicholas’ Cathedral,
State and Bond Streets, Brooklyn, New York
By Metropolitan Antony Bashir
Indeed the hour is corning when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.”
Persecution has been the constant companion of those who call themselves Christians since their Master was crucified on Calvary two thousand years ago. The blood of the Martyrs enriched the earliest age of the Church’s history, and throughout the centuries and since the Disciples of the Crucified have been no strangers to discrimination, physical torture and death itself. All Christians rejoice in the spiritual fellowship of the martyrs who have made the ultimate sacrifice of faith.
We Orthodox are well acquainted with the persecutor. The Church has lived her whole history under masters who plotted her destruction in the name of strange gods. Now, today, this very afternoon — this moment — our brethren in Eastern Europe are celebrating Orthodoxy Sunday in peril of their lives. For them the martyrs are not ancient names in the Church calendar; they are the names of persons who lived in the same town, down the street or next door.
When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia after World War I they proclaimed the separation of the Church from the state, and of the school from the Church. Deprived of government aid and of access to the minds of the young, Orthodoxy — the religion of 90% of the Russian people — this ancient superstition, would die and disappear. In the bright new Marxist world man would no longer need the crutch supplied by the illusions of faith. The old, state-dominated, corrupt, formal, ritualistic Orthodox Church was confidently expected to expire with the first generation of believers.
When the expected death of the Church did not occur at once, however, all of the terroristic weapons of the police state were unleashed against it. From 1928 until 1932, and from 1937 to 1940 major assaults were carried on against Orthodoxy. Churches were closed, clergy killed or imprisoned, believers subjected to every indignity and deprivation not excluding exile and death, and anti-religious campaigns on all levels were intensified.
In answer to protests from the civilized world against this brutality, the Communist government hypocritically denied the true character of its program. The practice of religion was unhampered, its spokesmen said, if churches were closed it was by popular demand or because they were empty. If priests or bishops were sent to labor camps or shot it was for counter-revolutionary activity. Anyway, religion was dying in the Soviet State.
Early this month the Soviet press carried the report of a new, stepped-up anti-religious campaign in Russia. You need not have read Pravda to have learned of it; the Times and Herald Tribune both carried full accounts. Those of us who head the Orthodox Church in America were not surprised at the news, except that it came so late. Since 1959, the vaunted era of “thaw” and greater freedom under Khrushchev, when the barbarities of the Stalin regime are confessed and repudiated, the Orthodox Church in Russia has been subjected to new and intensive repressions. By the summer of 1960 seven thousand churches were reported closed by State action, of sixty-seven monasteries opened since World War II, only some thirty remained at last counting. Western tourists have reported conditions of which they have been eye-witnesses: of 25 churches in Kiev only 8 remain open in Odessa 9 out of a total of 23; in Rostov-on-Don only 4 out of 12, and so on and on; every major town and city in the Soviet Union has seen the forcible destruction of centers of worship. Perhaps more important has been the closing of one half of the few seminaries, and the provision of new legal obstacles placed in the path of would-be theological students. The clergy is once again the object of government interference in every sphere of life. Spies and provocateurs are introduced into the churches and among the clergy, the priest has been deprived of administrative authority in the parish and denied control of the monies of the local church; bishops and hierarchs are accused of financial, moral and political crimes and removed from their charges. All means are employed to discourage the faithful and to limit their religious life.
This briefest outline of the effects of the current anti-religious persecution of our Church in Russia is most revealing. It is a negative witness to the vigor of Russian Orthodoxy. Forty years after the Marxist dictatorship seized power there are still in Russia churches, clergy, seminaries and faithful: one estimate places their number at twenty-five million. Evidently the Communist system has failed to eliminate religion. In 1928 and 1937 buildings could be closed and believers killed, but once the repression abated, reopened, even newly built, churches were packed with faithful. Young men began to prepare for the priesthood, the Church revived. What a glorious testimony to our Orthodox Faith!
Is our role in this tragic drama simply to be that of admiring spectators of the sufferings of these twentieth century martyrs? As brothers and sisters in Orthodoxy we cannot watch in silence as our coreligionists are tormented and killed for their belief in our Lord Jesus Christ, and as their houses of worship are destroyed and their children perverted. This would not be the spirit of our ancestors, of the Fathers, or of Orthodoxy.
Comrade Khrushchev has obviously lost the battle in advance. In the gigantic slave-labor camp that Communism has made of Russia, Orthodoxy has proven more than a match for Marxism. After forty years with the Communists in full control of the educational system and all of the means of communication, the Church must be suppressed by force! On the intellectual level the Church has been victorious, now the police and soldiers are required. What a commentary on the relative strength of the two ideologies!
You and I have our responsibilities in this struggle between Christ and Satan. First, inform yourself of the campaign against religion in Russia, and in Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, where our brethren in Orthodoxy face brutality unmatched since the darkest ages of human history. Organize study groups in your parishes learn the facts; this is a vital chapter in our history, one that calls upon you for a personal response.
Question seriously our national policies. As American citizens and voters of the Orthodox faith, make sure that your tax dollars, and your government does not lend aid or comfort to the brutal masters of the enslaved millions of Orthodox in eastern Europe. Is American wheat destined to shore up the inefficient economy of the Communist lands? Will it be used to feed the hungry or to feed only those who bow before the Party tyrants? It is your right to know. Ask your elected representatives. Inform your non-Orthodox neighbors.
Are there to be cultural exchanges between the United States and the nations of Communist Europe? What is the purpose? Do the symphony orchestras, the dance teams, the actors, represent the peoples from whose lands they come or are they favorites or slaves of the dictators?
Why is emigration practically impossible from Communist lands? Why do we see no tourists from the worker’s paradise? Millions of our fellow citizens are duped into believing that liberty and truth are available behind the Iron Curtain. We know better, let us inform them. Let us also inform our government.
Today in this free land we worship Almighty God according to our consciences with the support of our government. We cannot be deaf to the cries of our brethren from the East. Nor can we be inactive. Write to our President, to your Senators and Representatives, to your local officials. Make yourself heard. Speak for those who are gagged, or in prison, or in martyr’s graves. Several thousands of Jews were deprived of matzoth for Passover in Moscow; their cry was echoed around the world. Relief came. Two hundred million Orthodox are enslaved under Communism, we must not betray them with silence. If they are to suffer the loss of their faith, their children, their very lives, let us who enjoy the liberty of this land employ it on their behalf.
We have slept too long. Let us rouse ourselves from our indifference and dedicate our lives to those who suffer in our name and for our faith. Do not leave this cathedral on this Orthodoxy Sunday without dedicating yourself to this cause, in your prayers, in your study and in action.