Orthodox Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev has recently warned Europeans of the dangers of building a completely atheist and secularized society. That was the situation in Eastern Europe under communism. Some of the methods may have been different, but the outcome is the same: the notion of God is expelled from society, religion is confined to the private sphere, and Christians are forced to endure persecution.
Indeed, there is a close connection between contemporary Christophobia and the Red Terror of the 20th century. Many historians agree that the 20th century was the bloodiest in the history of mankind. It was the era of totalitarian regimes, world wars, worldwide revolutions, genocides, and religious persecutions.
The Black Book of Communism (edited by Stéphane Courtois) has lifted the veil on the crimes of communism, giving us a rough estimate of the number of dead as a result of the October Revolution, the Stalinist dictatorship, the Chinese Revolution, as well as the Cambodia of Pol Pot and the Cuba of Fidel Castro: 85 million. This figure could be at least doubled if we consider that, in China alone, the communist regime was responsible for 80 million deaths just during the so-called Great Leap Forward devised by Mao and implemented between 1958 and 1961.
The real problem is not the quantity but the ideological quality of this crime. An analysis that merely catalogs the practical consequences, without going deeper into the ideological causes, only shrouds communism in greater mystery. In order to unravel this mystery, we must understand communism’s inherent hatred of religion, which the communist theorists never hid. Marx and Engels defined it as the “opiate of the masses”; Lenin called it “alcohol for the spirit”; and Gramsci referred to it as “mere narcotics for the masses.” Nonetheless, “Scientific Socialism” should not be judged on such theoretical statements alone but on its practical consequences, since it is necessary for philosophers to prove the validity of their thoughts, as Marx himself clarifies.
According to Article 124 of the Soviet Constitution of 1936, “Freedom of religious worship and freedom of antireligious propaganda is recognized for all citizens.” Yet religion and atheism were not on a level playing field. Religious freedom was relegated to private practice, to each individual’s choice, so it was, in fact, severely restricted. Atheism had the right of propaganda and the support of the state, so it easily crept into the public space, while religion slowly died away.
Militant atheism was the main force behind the Soviet system. All that belonged to the Church—real estate, seminaries, schools, orphanages, hospitals—was nationalized. The teaching of religion was forbidden, as well as the use of clearly religious symbols such as icons and crosses, even on tombs. All religious functions and public displays—christenings, marriages, funerals—had to be stripped of all religious reference and meaning. Cathedrals, churches, and chapels became warehouses, factories, cinemas, and stables for animals.
Antichristian “carnivals” were organized in place of the most important religious celebrations of the year. Antichristian films were produced, and atheism museums were opened in former churches. The teaching and study of atheism was made mandatory in all universities and schools.
Before 1917, the Russian Orthodox Church counted about 210,000 members of the clergy between monks and priests. In the Years of Terror (1917-41), 150,000 of them were killed. In 1917 there were 300 Russian Orthodox bishops; 250 of them were killed by the Bolsheviks. After the collapse of the empire in 1917, there were perhaps 2.5 million Catholics, along with 14 bishops, 1,350 priests, about 600 churches. By 1941, only two churches remained open, one in Moscow and one in Leningrad (both belonging to the French Embassy); in all of Russia only one Catholic bishop and twenty priests were allowed to live in relative freedom; 300 priests had been killed, and many others were forced to emigrate to other countries. The propaganda continued after Stalin’s death (1953) with Khrushchev and his successors. “In a short time,” Khrushchev explained, “religion will cease to exist, people will forget what religion is, and I will show you the very last Catholic priest.”
Under the approving gaze of Western governments, Soviet communism took over all of Eastern Europe following the Yalta Conference, unleashing a relentless persecution of Christians. Some outstanding clergymen dared to oppose communism during those terrible years. Among the first was the Uniate archbishop of Lviv (Ukraine), Joseph Slipyi: When the Russians offered him the possibility of becoming Orthodox patriarch in Moscow (in order to convince him to break ties with the Vatican), he refused, preferring to continue his life in gulags for 17 years, and then in exile. Blessed Alexjei Zaryckji, of Ukrainian origins, was deported to Karaganda in Kazakhstan and died there as a martyr in 1963.
Msgr. Alòjzije Stepìnac, archbishop of Zagreb, in the former Yugoslavia, was arrested on September 18, 1946, in response to the pastoral letter that he promulgated on September 23, 1945, which revealed that 243 members of the clergy in his diocese had been killed, 169 arrested, and 89 disappeared. He was sentenced to 16 years of forced labor in the prison of Lepoglava, followed by house arrest in his hometown of Krasic, where he was kept under close police surveillance until his death (by poisoning) in 1960. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1998.
In Hungary in 1948, communists launched against József Cardinal Mindszenty a defamatory campaign similar to that which had been waged against Archbishop Stepìnac. Because of his heroic resistance, Cardinal Mindszenty was tortured for 40 days and forced to sign documents, the contents of which he was not aware. All religious orders were outlawed in 1950, and around 10,000 clergy had to find other ways of making a living. Msgr. Zoltan Meszlenyi, auxiliary bishop of Esztergom and successor to Cardinal Mindszenty, died in a concentration camp in 1951 and was beatified in 2009, becoming the first beatified martyr of the Hungarian communist regime.
Two other important names are those of Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, archbishop of Warsaw and primate of Poland, and Josef Cardinal Beran, archbishop of Prague, in the Czech Republic.
When Cardinal Beran died in 1969, Stephan Trochta secretly became his successor, but he also died in 1974 following a brutal interrogation. Together with him, we should mention Blessed Vasil Hopko, a Greek Catholic who was arrested and tortured, and also the “underground” Bishop Ján Korec, who is now cardinal and was the inspiration behind the Catholic resistance in the Slovak Republic. Many of the faithful know about the Polish resistance and its symbolic leader, Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko.
In Albania thousands of priests and Catholic laymen were killed by the communists, led by Enver Hoxha. The elite of the Communist Party in Albania was proud to say that their country was the “First Atheist State in the world,” as it was put in the Albanian constitution of 1976. Among those who resisted was Fr. Mikel Koliqui, who was made cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1994. He had been sentenced to forced labor in 1945 for the crime of listening to a foreign radio broadcast.
In 1950 the majority Greek Orthodox Church of Bulgaria became an organ of the state. Fr. Eugenio Bossilkov, now beatified, was arrested, tortured, executed, and thrown into a common grave in 1952.
In Rumania, Catholic churches, hospitals, and schools were closed. Msgr. Iuliu Hossu, made cardinal in picture by Pope Paul VI, refused to abjure his faith and died in prison, as did Anton Durcovici, bishop of Iasi. The bishops Áron Márton of Alba Iulia and Alexandru Todea (who became a cardinal) spent their lives in prison or under house arrest.
No gulag could compare with the prison of Pitesti, north of Bucharest, a horrific place where Eugen Turcanu invented the most gruesome torments in order to reeducate the prisoners both physically and mentally, including forcing political prisoners to torture one another. Seminarians had their heads pushed into a bucket of urine and feces each day, which the prison guards made into a parody of the Rite of Baptism. Turcanu forced prisoners to participate in Black Masses, especially during Holy Week.
How could we forget the Red Holocaust in Spain, where the number of priests and clergy who became martyrs is as high as 6,832, including 30 bishops? Most of the 20th-century martyrs who have since been beatified were killed during the first six months of the Spanish Civil War, from July 1936 to January 1937.
And communist imperialism spread worldwide. We now have proof that 129 priests were killed by Italian communist partisans between September 1944 and April 1945. Blessed Fr. Francesco Bonifacio (1912-46) was killed by Tito’s militia.
Is communism dead? Reports published by Aid to the Church in Need clearly show that persecution continues in several countries, from Cuba to North Korea, not to mention China, where the forced-labor camps (laogai) inaugurated by Chairman Mao in 1950 are still being used to break down political opposition and provide the regime with an enormous (and no-cost) workforce.
The impressive book Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jon Halliday and Jung Chang, details the persecutions suffered in China by adherents of any religion in the years following World War II. In 2000, Ignatius Pin-Mei Cardinal Kung, archbishop of Shanghai, died: He had spent 30 years of his life in prison camps, 2 under house arrest, and 13 in exile. François-Xavier Nguyên Van Thuan (1928-2002), bishop of Saigon, Vietnam, was held in prison from 1975 to 1988, and then was made cardinal in 2001.
There is also a bloodless, but no less fierce, persecution that relies on mass-media defamation and moral isolation. This is part of the sophisticated yet relentless cultural and psychological war waged by communism, which has found in Antonio Gramsci its most influential advocate in the West. For him, the task of communism is to bring to the common people that utter secularism which the Age of Enlightenment had limited to the elite. His aim is the elimination of the very idea of God from society. This can come about only by a “complete secularization of all life and all relations between people”—that is, a secularization of all social life and personal relationships, which allows communist ideology to replace religion. Unlike the militantly atheist states of the past, the secular state does not need to proclaim its open hostility toward Christianity.
In order to suppress any sort of Christian self-awareness within society, Christianity must be eradicated from historical memory and public spaces. There is therefore a close connection between the official request from the European Court of Human Rights that Italy remove the crucifix from all public places and the elimination of any mention of Christianity and the Christian roots of Europe from the Preamble of the Lisbon Treaty, which serves as the basis for the European Union.
The new Europe is the realization of Gramsci’s plan for a total secularization of society. The communist regimes have fallen, but the relativism embraced by the West is rooted in the same materialism that gave birth to communism.
The prophecy of Fatima—that Russia would spread her mistaken beliefs to the rest of the world—has actually come true. The decomposition of communism has fostered the decay of the West. It cannot, however, destroy Christianity, the only true reason for living and hope.