Protestant Suppression in Communist Eastern Europe

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Christians Protestants faced marginalization across Eastern Europe during the years of communist rule in twentieth century. Despite suppression from the government and other religious groups, Protestants in Romania, East Germany, Hungary, Poland Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, proved a force to be reckoned with in communist society but paid a heavy price for their dissension.

Marginalization of Protestants in Society

Understanding the bond between Orthodoxism and nationalism (or Catholicism and nationalism in Croatia, Slovenia or Poland) is vital to understanding the marginalization of Protestants not just in most of Eastern Europe. The Orthodox Christian tradition is so ingrained in Romanian culture and other Eastern Europe communities that in the twenty-first century a person converting to another denomination could be considered a traitor to his family.

The different states of Yugoslavia experienced something similar where the Catholic Church was dominant in Croat and Slovene communities and the Orthodox Church was comprised of ethnic groups from Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Protestants were in the minority and were marginalized for their western influence.

When communism came to power in Romania with the forced abdication of King Michael in 1947, the Orthodox Church quickly came under government control. In 1946 a law forcing censorship of religious publications was passed by the Ministry of the Interior. In 1948 the Greek Catholic Church (Uniate Church) in Romania was forced to join the Romanian Orthodox Church, which was already “completely subordinated to the interests of the communist party.” The Uniate church in Czechoslovakia faced the same fate.

The Catholic Church in Poland used its power of national Polish identity to provide unity between different social groups. However, as in Romania, Protestants were viewed with suspicion because of their relatively recent entry into Polish society.

Communism and Religion

Orthodox reformer priests in Romania like Traian Dorz, Calciu Dumitreasa and Iosif Trifa who refused to be informants for the communists were imprisoned, tortured or killed. This occurred across Eastern Europe. The first communist government in Bucharest, led by Petru Groza, infiltrated the Romanian Orthodox Church and then turned its focus towards the Protestant churches. These included the Lutheran, Reformed, and NeoProtestant churches of the Baptists, Pentecostals and Seventh-Day Adventist.

For the communists, religion needed to be simplified and presented to the masses as something superfluous. They devised both ideological and physical means of repression. Church land was nationalized; church finances were controlled by the government; religious schools were closed; secular celebrations were declared by the State to replace religious holidays. In the GDR the evangelical youth group Junge Gemeinde was suppressed and church leaders were imprisoned. Early opposition to the suppression in the GDR rose through Bishop Dibelius in 1952; but by 1953 there was an increase in show trials, arrests and suppressive legislation.

Sunday became a work day for many and the celebration of Christmas was replaced with the commemoration of Stalin’s birthday. In Yugoslavia religion was severely curtailed until the 1960s when the government lessened its suppressive grip.

In Romania in 1950, Baptists, Pentecostals and Seventh-Day Adventists were forced to join the government formed Federation of Protestant Cults. The government ordered the leaders of the Federation and the Orthodox Church to tell their congregations to keep their religion private. In Bulgaria this was cruelly enforced, and its communist government stood out as one of the harshest oppressors of the church in Eastern Europe.

The Orthodox Church in Bulgaria proved similar to the Romanian Orthodox Church’s subservience to the state. Bibles imported were stored away and not given to the public. Show trials and deportations to labor camps like in Romania under Gheorgiu-Dej were the norm.

An example of the harsh suppression in Bulgaria is the famous Popov trial. From February 8 to March 8, 1949 fifteen Protestant pastors where put on trial and after torture and intense brainwashing they were forced to plead guilty to false charges. Haralan Popov was one of the Pentecostal pastors on trial who wrote of the terror he experienced. His descriptions of life in communist prison are similar to those of Richard Wurmbrand in Romania and to Solzhenitsyn in Russia.

Romanian historian Lucian Leustean wrote that religion was denigrated by the government because it was a shield against indoctrination and communist propaganda. Not only were the Protestants labeled as uneducated, but myths and horror stories about them spread across the country- stories of incest, murder, child sacrifices and cannibalism. Up until the revolution of 1989 one could still find people who described Protestants as people who drink blood and eat human flesh.

Though this was an obvious lack of knowledge on the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, a considerable number believed the calumny. Another story circulating was that Baptists, Pentecostals and Adventists would turn off the lights and have sexual orgies whenever they met; or that they forced their children to pray by threatening them with chains. Any type of slander from accusations of embezzlement to sexual immorality was used to vilify the Protestants.

Sources:

  1. Dennis Deletant, “Romania, 1945-89: Resistance, Protest, Dissent” Revolution and Resistance in Eastern Europe: Challenges to Communist Rule, ed. Kevin McDermott and Matthew Stibbe. NY: Berg Publishers, 2006.
  2. Sabrina Petra Ramet, “Protestantism in East Germany, 1949-1989: A Summing Up,” Protestantism and Politics in Eastern Europe.
  3. Haralan Popov, Torturat Pentru Credinta. Fagaras: Editura Agape, 1998.
  4. Lucian N. Leustean, Orthodoxy and the Cold War: Religion and Political Power in Romania, 1947-65. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
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