Finding Heaven in a Bolshevist Prison
Persecutions of Christians in Russia.
(Dr. A. McCraig, in the "Sunday School Times.")
(Continued from Last Issue.)
After fifteen days in this criminal cell, our brother was told that he was to be banished to the far North, to the Soviet Islands in the White Sea. Heavy was his heart at the thought that he would never see his people again. For more than five months he had no news of them; no interviews had been allowed; no information given by the authorities. Many of the prisoners had pillows and blankets supplied by friends, but he had nothing but sackcloth on the cold cement floor; yet he had been in heavenly places with Christ Jesus.
The day came for his banishment. The hour appointed was five o'clock. Weeping and praying, he had fallen into a sound sleep, when suddenly he heard his name called, "Is M. here? Pick up your things for liberty!" He could not believe it until the man called a second time. He said to the officer, "Why do you mock me?" But they asserted the truth of their statement, while the criminals gathered round to bid him farewell with tears in their eyes.
Since that time Mr. M. has been exposed to many trials, secretly passing from one republic to another to escape imprisonment or worse, but always preaching the Gospel and enjoying wonderful blessing. But during all his Christian life he has been, so to speak, playing at hide and seek with death. Under the old Tsarist regime, he knew what persecution meant, and since the emergence of the Bolshevist power, he has been in prison oft and in perils many. A little while ago he was able to make his way to Riga- how he did so would be a story in itself-and is now rejoicing to find himself in a free country, although his heart is in Russia.
A few facts, supplied by this reliable witness, may be added concerning the situation in Russia. A measure of tolerance in religious matters is given, for indeed the Bolshevist Constitution affirms that the State has nothing to do with religion, though in practice it has everything to do with it, and what freedom is enjoyed is hedged about by many restrictions. No church meeting can be arranged without the permission of the G. P. Y. and its approval. Church meetings must be held with open doors, and anybody is free to enter, especially anyone from the authorities has the right to go in and take part. The authorities indeed have a hand in all church matters. No preacher can preach without a special permit from the G. P. Y. A Baptist pastor will usually have a certificate attesting his ability to preach from the Baptist Union, but that certificate must be approved by the G. P. Y. to have any value. A new convert must be registered by the government before being allowed to join the church. That provision, by the way, is a legacy from the old regime, for even after the toleration edict by the late Tsar, anyone desiring to leave the State church and join the Baptists or any other denomination had to apply to the civic authorities for permission, and had to satisfy them that the step was taken by one's own free will, and without coercion. The old system of the former Secret Service Police has been taken over by the Bolshevists.
Purging a Church of Communists. Not only is this supervision exercised as to the admission of members, but any exclusion of members is prohibited by the authorities unless they are satisfied as to the reason. My friend told of one church where some of the young people went over to the Young Communists' League and began to teach
atheism and to go to theatres and other places of amusement. The church wished to exclude them, but the authorities threatened that if they did so, the church leaders would suffer evil. Our friend is a resourceful man, and he fell upon a plan that saved the situation. It was decided to have an extra church meeting and at that meeting to exclude forty of the members, including the Communistic persons. The fact of its being an "extra" church meeting, it seems, gave them the right to exclude members without showing any special reason for the action. Most of those excluded were "good members, and the authorities could not raise any special objection to the exclusion of those whom they favored, since others whom they had no inclination to shield were under the same condemnation. So the excluding sentence was carried out, and some time after an evangelistic campaign was held when the "good" members were received again.
All business done in the church must be reported to the G.P.Y.; all minutes must be submitted to them. Ft is not an uncommon thing for church members, even pastors, to go over to the Communists through fear. For one thing, they cannot get work unless they are Communists, and when work is scarce they are the first to be discharged, and unemployment is very prevalent, two-thirds of the workers being unemployed. In Moscow alone there are 1,500,000 unemployed. All brothers and sisters in the church lose their rights of voting and have no right to sell or buy. Most factories and mills are being closed. No permission whatever is now being given for private trade. Our friend knows of many who have been banished after having all their possessions confiscated. The few who get permission to carry on business have such high rents to pay that it is impossible to get a living.
When I asked, specially about the peasantry, my friend assured me that every house, other than the merest hut, is nationalised. Ten or fifteen acres are given to the peasant. The mansions of the former nobility are, for the most part used for Communistic organisations. He considers that condition of the peasant is much worse than in the old days. On the result of his harvest, he has to pay the State from twelve to twenty-five per cent, according to the quantity, while everything is heavily taxed in addition - horses, sheep, pigs, fowls. The government sets the price for corn.
Our brother gave some instances that had come under his notice of the arbitrary way in which punishment is meted out to the accused. On one occasion one hundred believers were arrested; every third man was sentenced to be shot. On another occasion three Communists were killed, and is was decided that to punish the neighborhood one thousand peasants should be killed. Every third man on the street was taken until the number was made up. As a matter of fact, the number was exceeded, and after the execution the authorities issued an apology for having shot one thousand and twenty-three instead of one thousand!
I have passed from the strictly religious side of things. Let me come back to it and say that at first the Bolshevists rather favored the Baptists, at least did not interfere with them. They said that because the Baptists helped them to destroy the Orthodox Church, they welcomed them. Now, however, for some time they have been specially incensed against the Baptists, and say they are their greatest enemies. Until they put them down, they cannot destroy the capitalist system. It is believed that they would massacre them all if they were not afraid of the masses. Lately orders have been given to all local authorities to do their utmost to prevent all Baptist movements and to hinder their services wherever possible. It would seem that it is in pursuance of that order that two of the brethren in Petrograd, who in December last were imprisoned and in February set at liberty, have again been cast into prison. In many places baptisms have now to be performed secretly at night. That used to be the practice in the blackest of the olden days.
Notices have lately appeared in British and American papers of these anti-religionists' confession of powerlessness against the recrudescence of religious devotion in Russia, and my friend assures me that the Government is very much disturbed by the mass conversions that are taking place, and is especially concerned about the growth of the Baptists. Recently, some Government representatives had an interview with leading Baptists, and in effect said to them, "You have increased from eighty thousand to five million. You Baptists are so numerous that you could overthrow the Government and take the rule into your own hands. It is because of you that we cannot give full liberty. We would be in danger of losing our power. If we allowed free election, you would certainly choose Baptists, so would the greater number of your sympathisers, and they would turn us out, and so we have to adopt the strictest measures. While you have increased so much, we are only as before, seven hundred thousand."
I close with one instance of how the law affecting parents and children operates. The law does not permit the parents to punish their children as these belong to the State. In a certain family, the children were persuaded to go to some Communist meetings. One evening the girl came home very late, and the mother asked for the reason. The girl cried out: "You are not my mother; I belong to the State. You have no business to interfere with me. I shall report you.'' The boy came in and slapped his mother in the face. When the governor got to know of the matter, the father and mother were apprehended and condemned to be shot, but the sentence was reduced to ten years' imprisonment because they were people of "democratic opinions."-Reprint-"The Victorious Gospel."