NEW YORK (Sep. 25)
The Rev. Billy Graham, just back from a 12-day tour of the Soviet Union, today said that oppression of Soviet Jews has lessened in recent years as compared to the period immediately following the Bolshevik revolution and the years of the Stalin regime.
Since the regime of Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970′s, Graham said, “there seems to be far less oppression” of religious freedoms in the Soviet Union. He added that this “trend which started under Mr. Brezhnev seems to be continuing.”
Asked specifically whether he felt that oppression of the Soviet Jewish community has decreased since the Brezhnev regime, Graham said: “I don’t know if there is more oppression or not in the Jewish community.”
Today’s news conference at the Hilton Hotel, attended by dozens of reporters, marked Graham’s first full-scale meeting with the press since he returned last weekend from his second trip to the Soviet Union in as many years.
When he returned from the USSR in 1982, Graham caused considerable controversy in religious circles when he indicated that he thought there was a “measure of religious freedom” in the Soviet Union, a position disputed by many sources.
Graham said his most recent tour of the Soviet Union was a result of an invitation to him by the Russian Orthodox Church and the All-Union Council of the Evangelical Baptists of the U.S., which includes a number of denominations other than Baptists. The visit was sanctioned by the Soviet governement, he said.
In a statement distributed to reporters prior to the news conference, Graham noted that he visited Jewish synagogues in Moscow and Leningrad, and “I talked with several Jewish leaders in those cities about their religious and cultural life, aspirations and problems. I talked with Soviet officials about the possibilities for more Jews to emigrate as the number has decreased in the last two years.”
Graham said he raised the issue of matters of concern to the Christian and Jewish community when he met privately with Soviet officials. He said he would not elaborate on these private meetings. It is understood that the issue of Jewish emigration was raised in these private meetings.
Soviet Jewish activist groups here and abroad have persistently pointed to stepped-up harassment and persecution of Soviet Jews. Emigration for Soviet Jews has reached its lowest levels since the mid-1970′s, with little indication of the emigration doors being opened to Soviet Jews in the near future.
Graham said that in addition to visiting the two synagogues in Moscow and Leningrad, he attempted to visit synagogues in the Siberian academic community of Novosibirsk and also in Tallinn. He said he requested to meet with Jews in Novosibirsk but was told by officials they did not know of any Jews living there or of any synagogue.
On the airplane back to the U.S., Graham recounted that he was told by an unidentified passenger that there were in fact Jews who resided in Novosibirsk, many of them Soviet scientists.
SPECULATION ON GRAHAM’S STANCE
Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, the American Jewish Committee’s director of international affairs, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency following the news conference, which he attended, that Graham had privately pressed the issue of Soviet harassment and oppression of Jews and Jewish emigration when he met with Soviet officials.
As to why Graham decided to back away from public comments affirming Soviet Jewish harassment when asked by reporters at the news conference, Tanenbaum could only speculate. He suggested that it is perhaps part of Graham’s concern that he again be allowed to visit the Soviet Union, a massive feat, according to Tanenbaum.
The AJCommittee official asserted further that Graham has been a strong activist and supporter on behalf of Soviet Jewry. He said Graham did make strong representation on behalf of Soviet Jews when he met privately with Soviet officials.