23.8 The Persecution of Believers in Lithuania

No 23 : 5 January 1972

The Trial of the priest J. Zdebskis

The trial of the priest Juozas Zdebskis (see CCE 21, 22), who was arrested on 26 August in Prienai, took place on 11 November 1971 in the people’s court of the Kaunas district. Zdebskis had been brutally beaten while in police custody, and until his trial he had been held in the Lukiski Prison in Vilnius.

Despite the fact that the time and place of the trial had been carefully kept secret by the authorities, about 600 people had assembled outside the court-house by 10 a.m., many of them girls who had brought flowers. The police began to disperse the crowd; one woman suffered a broken rib, another lost consciousness from a blow on the head; women and girls were beaten, hurled to the ground, dragged along by their feet and shoved into police vans. In all about twenty people were driven away, including two priests. Bloodstains and trampled flowers were left on the steps and in the street. Pedestrians and vehicles were forbidden to stop outside the courthouse, and all the residents of neighbouring buildings were ordered to close their windows.

The chairman of the court was Gumuljauskas, People’s Judge of the Kaunas district; in addition to the state prosecutor, who was the Prienai District Procurator, a prosecutor for the people had also been appointed – Rakitskas, headmaster of the Prienai boarding-school. Counsel for Zdebskis was Rauba.

Question from the Judge: “What did you teach the children?”

Zdebskis: “To understand the holy sacraments and the Mass.”

Judge: “What texts did you use?”

Zdebskis: “Old catechisms and prayer-books.”

Judge: “You were warned that teaching was not allowed.”

Zdebskis: “So I was told, but it was never forbidden in writing. Church and state are separated, but I think parents have the right to educate their own children. We were simply teaching at the [Sunday] school, there was no compulsion. What am I on trial for?”

Judge: “Did you tell the children that it was wrong to marry persons professing another religion?”

Zdebskis: “There is no Church law to that effect; it would be criminal for a priest to teach against the laws of the Church.”

Judge: “Did you teach the children to contravene the laws of the state?”

Zdebskis: “I taught them obedience.”

Judge: “Have you previously been convicted for giving children religious instruction?”

Zdebskis: “Yes, but when it was discovered that the instruction was voluntary I was legally exculpated. Why am I on trial today? What am I being tried for?”

About ten children, aged between nine and eleven, were questioned as witnesses. When they were asked “What did he teach you?” the children answered: “Not to steal or break windows”. “Did he test whether you knew your prayers?” – “I can’t remember.” Many of them did not answer, but just cried.

The address by the prosecutor for the people consisted, in effect, of nothing but rabble-rousing insults.

The //Procurator stated: “Children get all the teaching they need at school; there is no reason for them to go to church for more. We shall not allow children to be taught anywhere except at school”. He demanded a sentence of one year of corrective-labour camps under Article 143 of the Lithuanian Criminal Code [cf. Article 142 of RSFSR Criminal Code – separation of Church and State, and of Church and School].

The defence counsel said that Article 143 had not been violated, and drew attention to the abusive tone of the prosecutor for the people.

In his ten-minute final address, which was three times interrupted by the Judge, Zdebskis said that he had nothing new to add to what the priest Seskevicius had stated in his summing-up for the defence at his own trial the previous year [see CCE 17 and 20]. He had broken no laws, but had merely performed his clear duty:

“. . . it is one of a priest’s obligations … It was to apply my knowledge in practice that I graduated from a religious seminary. If priests are permitted to exist, then they must also be given the right to work . . . After all, the believers only pay my wages so that I can serve them in their religious affairs, as a specialist in this field … I have no right to refuse a request to instruct a child. Imagine, respected judge, how you would feel if you were put on trial, as I am now, for carrying out your duties.

It can be inferred from what the prosecutor for the people and the procurator have said that two sorts of laws exist in the Soviet Union: some are put on public view, but it is the others, the secret ones, which govern the practice of the authorities. If we are to believe the prosecutors, then the Church in the Soviet Union is apt separated from the state, but is strictly subject to the Atheistic law. If children may not be prepared for their first communion, then why do we need this Constitution Of ours at all? Why all these solemn declarations about freedom of conscience? It is unattractive to say one thing and do another. It compromises the laws in the eyes of the people: they cease to respect such laws . . .”

After a two-hour recess sentence was passed: one year of ordinary-regime corrective-labour camps.

On 6 November 1971 believers in Prienai addressed a letter to the [first] secretary of the Central Committee of the Lithuanian Communist Party, A. Sneckus, and to the Chairman of the Lithuanian Council of Ministers [J. A. Maniusis]:

“We, Christian working people of Soviet Lithuania, are celebrating with new successes in our life and in our labour an auspicious occasion – the 54th anniversary of the October Revolution.

“We would wish this to be an occasion for rejoicing. But alas, our hearts are saddened by the malicious persecution visited upon us for our desire to study our religion.

“How can we, as parents, feel other than resentful when someone tries to take away our parental rights in the moral upbringing of our children, and is determined to turn them into atheists?

“The thousands of working people who have signed appeals to the USSR Authorities have expressed their wishes in no uncertain terms.

“We await the day when those ringing phrases about justice, liberty and happiness will no longer merely be trumpeted from platforms and blazoned on roofs, but will also exist in reality.”

The letter was accompanied by a photograph of the priest J. Zdebskis surrounded by children and their parents.

The Trial of the Priest P. Bubnis

In the summer of 1971 the Bishop of Kaunas was given official permission to carry out the confirmation of children in the church at Raseiniai. Priests informed believers accordingly.

During the period when the children were being tested on their knowledge, the Raseiniai District authorities repeatedly burst into the churches. When this happened in the village of Girkalnis on 23 July there were no children in the church, but on 25 July the priest P. Bubnis was examining a boy while about 30 other children waited their turn. The children were seized and dragged off to the fire station, where they were each given pencil and paper to write “prosecution testimony”, which was dictated to them, against Bubnis. Many of the children were taken ill. Later the children and their parents were summoned to the District Executive Committee and to the school for questioning.

In the indictment, which was drawn up by the Raseiniai Procurator, Bubnis’s notification to the believers that their children’s knowledge was to be tested was described as a call for them to undergo instruction’, and it was “the organised instruction of children” of which he was accused.

Bubnis was tried by the Raseiniai people’s court on 12 November 1971. The sentence – one year of ordinary-regime corrective-labour camps [see note 40, Commentary No 23].

Parishioners in the village of Kuciunai, in the Lazdiai district, applied to the republican authorities for permission to complete the construction of a brick-built church 10 replace the dilapidated wooden building functioning at {present.

The sole reaction to this letter was a statement to the .incumbent of the church by [Justas] Rugenis, chairman of the Committee for Religious Affairs [at the Lithuanian Council of Ministers], to the effect that he would have to leave his parish.

In December 700 parishioners (including six deputies of local Soviets) addressed a complaint to L. I. Brezhnev about the actions of the local authorities.

On 4 October 1971 the Varena district executive committee imposed a fine of 50 roubles on [A.] Keina, the incumbent of the parish of Valkininkai, for allowing children to act as servers during church services. The priest was not permitted to speak at a meeting of the administrative affairs commission of the executive committee. For these actions Keina instituted legal proceedings against the authorities.

At the hearing in Varena on 15 November 1971 Keina explained that he had taken no action with regard to the instruction of the children, and that they had acted as servers on the initiative of their parents, who were believers. Visockis, deputy chairman of the Varena district executive committee, who was representing the defendants, accused the priest of breaking the law, referring to documents in the possession of Rugenis (see fore-going item in this report). The hearing was postponed.

At a hearing on 7 December it emerged that one of the statements mentioned by Visockis bore a false signature, while he had written another himself and then forced a boy named Kazlaukas to sign it by threatening him.

The Procurator defended the decision of the commission of the executive committee: “What would happen if parents were allowed to decide questions concerning the instruction of their children? …”

The court dismissed Keina’s action. In response to the intense indignation of those present, a police detachment was summoned.

The same Visockis (see the foregoing item), in company with a woman-teacher, Klukaite, and the headmaster of the school, threatened the schoolboy Kazlauskas with a bad mark for conduct if he did not give him the name of children who went to church. Klukaite and another teacher, Maisaitene, told a schoolgirl named Kazukaite that if she went to church she would be given bad references and would be unable to get a job. Grezaite, another schoolgirl, was warned that if she continued to go to church she would be barred from taking her examinations.

In response to complaints by the parents of these and other children who had been subjected to blackmail of a similar nature, Voroneckas, chairman of the Varena district executive committee, stated that “teachers are entitled to educate children in the spirit of atheism”.

At the secondary school in the village of Urkioniai [or Jurkoniai?] a schoolgirl named Lusickaite was threatened by Sauleniene//, a teacher, with being given low marks because she went to church.