Restrictions placed on the rights of Catholics, and especially the trials of Fathers J. Zdebskis and P. Bubnys, prompted the appearance of the memorandum.
The signatures were collected over a period of about two months. Because the memorandum was intended for the USSR government, no particular precautions were taken in collecting the signatures. Some of the signatures were obtained on Sundays near the churches as the faithful came to or went from the services, and the rest by visiting homes. On each page was a copy of the complete text of the memorandum so that the signers could acquaint themselves with its contents. For those unable to read, the signature gatherers would either read the memorandum or explain what matters this petition to the USSR government pertained to.
Catholics signed the memorandum with great enthusiasm. Only a small number refused to sign because they feared reprisals. The gathering of signatures was a spontaneous process—people would copy the text of the memorandum from one another and volunteer their help.
Fairly soon the news spread that the KGB was apprehending the persons who were gathering signatures, interrogating them as to where they had obtained the text of the memorandum, and confiscating the signatures already collected.
The collection of signatures was halted. Before the signatures were sent to the USSR government, a difficult question was posed: by what route should the signatures be sent to the General-Secretary of the CPSU? Complaints sent through the mail from the territory of Lithuania are usually intercepted by the KGB. The situation is no better when the complaints are presented directly to the addressees in Moscow. Undoubtedly not even one petition which the Catholics and priests sent to Moscow to Brezhnev, the General-Secretary of the Central Committee, or to Kosygin, the chairman of the Council of Ministers, or to Podgorny, the President of the Supreme Soviet, reached its addressee. They were all redirected to Vilnius and eventually reached J. Rugienis, the commissioner of the Council for Religious Affairs, which is attached to the Council of Ministers of the USSR, who, with the aid of the KGB, would attempt to ascertain just who had organized these petitions so that he could intimidate them and "explain" to them that the principles of freedom of religion and of conscience are not being violated in Lithuania.
In order to avoid a similar fate for the Catholics' memorandum, the decision was made to ask for help from the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim.
The memorandum reached the United Nations by a fortuitous route before Easter of 1972. The texts of the memorandum from the Catholics and the postscripts are presented below.
* * *
"To: L. Brezhnev, General-Secretary of the Central
Committee of the CPSU, Moscow—the Kremlin
A Memorandum from the Roman Catholics of Lithuania
"After World War II had ended, the nations rose from the ruins and now desire lasting peace. The foundation of true peace is justice and the respect of human rights. We, the Catholics of Lithuania, grieve that to this day the freedoms of the believers are being restricted and the Church is being persecuted in our nation.
"Bishops J. Steponavičius and V. Sladkevičius have had to bear the burden of exile for over ten years now with no end in sight although they have not been sentenced in court and are innocent of any offenses.
"In November of this year two priests, J. Zdebskis and P. Bubnys, were sentenced to a year in prison because at the request of the parents and in the performance of their priestly duties they explained to children the fundamentals of the Catholic faith. These priests helped the children to prepare for First Communion not in school but in church, and they did not coerce anyone—whoever wanted to, studied.
"At the same time, the children of believing parents are being taught atheism against their will in school; they are even being forced to speak, write, and behave at variance with their conscience, yet no one reprimands such violators of the freedom of conscience or tries to bring them to justice.
"The priests are unable to properly minister to our needs as believers because there are not enough of them. Already in many places one priest has to take care of the needs of two and sometimes even three parishes. Even aged invalid priests have had to continue working. Matters are such because the theological seminary's affairs are being managed not so much by the bishop as by an agent of the government. The authorities permit but ten seminarians to be enrolled in the seminary each year.
"Government officials also control priestly appointments to parishes.
"Although the Criminal Code of the LSSR prescribes penalties for the persecution of believers, in practice they are not being implemented. In 1970 the education department of Vilkaviškis dismissed from work teacher [Mrs.] Ona Brilienė because of her faith, and the authorities of Vilkaviškis Rayon will not even give her a job as a cleaning lady in her own town. No one punishes such officials even though persons of intelligence are afraid to practice their faith publicly because of the arbitrariness of such officials.
"Government officials do not permit the believers to rebuild, at their own expense, the churches destroyed by fire, for instance, in Sangrūda, Batakiai, Gaurė. After strenuous efforts permission is granted for a chapel to be furnished in the presbytery, but under no circumstances can it be transferred to the churchyard.
"We could point out many more distressing instances of persecution which have embittered our lives and have engendered disillusionment with the Soviet Constitution and the laws. Therefore we ask the Soviet government to grant us the freedom of conscience guaranteed by the Constitution of the USSR, which has not been enforced to this day. It is not pretty words in the press or over the radio that we desire but serious efforts by the government which would enable us Catholics to feel like equal citizens before the laws of the Soviet Union.
* * *
"To: the General-Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU
(A supplement to the memorandum)
"Included with this memorandum are 17,054 signatures. It is essential to point out that only an insignificant number of Lithuania's believers signed this memorandum because the police and the KGB resorted to a number of means in order to disrupt the large-scale collection of signatures. In Kapsukas, Šakiai, Išlaužas, and Kapčiamiestis the persons collecting signatures were apprehended, and the petitions found in their possession were confiscated in spite of the fact that the memorandum was addressed to the Soviet government.
"If in the future the state agencies will also react to the believers' complaints as they have until now, we will be forced to appeal to international organizations: the Pope in Rome, who is the Head of our Church, or to the United Nations, as the authoritative institution which defends human rights.
"In addition, we want to remind you that this memorandum is an outgrowth of a national misfortune: during the years of Soviet rule in Lithuania, certain social ills have increased tenfold, such as juvenile delinquency, drunkenness, suicide; there has also been an ominous increase in the number of divorces and abortions. And the further we recede from our Christian past, the more apparent become the dreadful consequences of a forced atheistic upbringing, and the more widespread is the inhuman way of life without God and without religion.
"We appeal to you, the supreme authority of the Communist party, asking you to examine with a sense of seriousness and responsibility the facts we have presented and to make the appropriate decisions.
the Catholics of Lithuania"
* * *
"To: Kurt Waldheim, the Secretary-General of the United Nations
An Appeal from the Catholics of Lithuania
"Bearing in mind that Lithuania does not have its own delegation at the United Nations, we Catholics of Lithuania have been compelled to appeal to you, Secretary-General, by means of fortuitous routes.
"We were prompted to turn to you by the circumstance that the believers of our Republic cannot make use of those rights which are set forth in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our clergy, our organized believers, and individual Catholics have appealed more than once to the highest state organs of the Soviet Union regarding this matter, demanding that the violations of the believers' rights be stopped. The Soviet leaders were sent several petitions from the faithful, among them: the petition from 2,000 Catholics of Prienai mailed in September, 1971; the petition from the believers of the parish in Santaika, in Alytus Rayon, signed by 1,190 persons and mailed in October, 1971; the petition from 1,344 believers from the parish in Girkalnis, Raseiniai Rayon, mailed in December, 1971. All these petitions were sent to several of the highest institutions of the USSR; however, not one of them has provided an official reply although state agencies are obliged to respond to citizens' petitions within one month's time. The unofficial response was increased repression of the believers.
"The Catholics of Lithuania decided to remind the Soviet government of their disenfranchised position through a memorandum to the General-Secretary of the CPSU, Mr. Brezhnev; however, the Soviet police and KGB organs disrupted the large-scale collection of signatures by means of intimidation, arrests, and handcuffs.
"Such actions by the authorities have convinced us that this memorandum signed by 17,000 believers would not attain its goal if it were sent by the same route as the previous collective petitions.
"Therefore, we Catholics of Lithuania are appealing to you, Honorable Secretary-General, and we are asking you to forward this memorandum with all its signatures, which we are sending you through the channels of the United Nations, to the General-Secretary of the CPSU,
Mr. L. Brezhnev.
the Catholics of Lithuania
* * *
The foreign press, radio, and television widely publicized this memorandum. The world's public opinion supported the 17,000 Catholics who had dared to publicly demand their rights. Pope Paul VI also remembered "the silent Church" in his Easter address.
How did the Soviet government organs react?
In their opinion this memorandum was slandering Soviet reality, and that was why the KGB was conducting a search for the initiators of the memorandum, but in vain, for so far they have exposed only a few of the signature collectors. Government agencies suspect that "anti-Soviet" priests had been the organizers of the memorandum.
* * *
On April ii, 1972, J. Rugienis, the commissioner of the Council for Religious Affairs, summoned to the office of the Kaunas Archdiocesan Curia all the bishops from the Lithuanian dioceses (who are actively fulfilling their functions) and all the ecclesiastical administrators. Together with Orlov, a representative of the authorities in Moscow, he forced them into signing a so-called "pastoral letter to the faithful," in which both those who had gathered the signatures and those who had signed the memorandum were slandered:
"3. Finally, recently in certain parishes, supposedly in the name of the clergy and the faithful, some irresponsible individuals have been collecting signatures on sheets of paper containing a text or even without one, near churches or even inside them and sometimes by visiting homes, ostensibly so that some pastor would be transferred, that some church would not be closed, that a priest would be appointed, that the pastor or the vicar would not be transferred, etc. These signature collectors later alter or add a text and attach to it the collected signatures. But this—is a falsification. We are astonished that there are believers who sign things without knowing why or for whom, and without considering what the consequences will be. We must not forget that the signing of irresponsible documents affects the relations between the Church and the State and gives rise to misunderstandings. Such matters bode no good for the Church..."
This letter was ordered to be read on Sunday, April 30, 1972, in place of all the sermons to be delivered that day.
It was immediately evident to all the clergy that this letter had been written by order of the government because the bishops had not received the information about the collection of signatures from authentic sources, and most importantly, the "pastoral" letter's allegations about the collection of signatures were clearly untrue. The clergymen discussed among themselves what should be done—whether to read the letter or not?
Many priests received a request with the following contents:
"Days that will test the mettle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania and of its clergy are before us. On April 30 all the priests are obligated to read a letter which compromises the bishops, the priests, and the believers.
1. On April 11 Rugienis, together with a representative of the government from Moscow, forced the Ordinaries to write this deplorable letter.
2. This letter is slanderous because the 17,000 believers did not sign on blank sheets of paper but under the text which is known throughout the world.
3. This letter insults and compromises the finest sons and daughters of the Catholic Church in Lithuania who had the courage to sign this memorandum.
4. This letter irrevocably compromises the Ordinaries themselves.
5. Priests are bound to obey their bishops only within the bounds of the Codex Juris Canonici. No one can obligate a priest to read slander.
6. Conscientious priests will not read this letter regardless of whatever consequences they may have to suffer.
"Father, we appeal to your priestly conscience; being a messenger of Him who called Himself the Truth, do not yield to lies and coercion, do not betray the cause of the nation and of the Church for a mess of porridge."
* * *
On the aforementioned Sunday, special persons were sent from the rayon offices to the churches to monitor which priests would read the letter and which would not.
The atheists made use of the "pastoral" letter of April ii for their propaganda. For example, even before April 30, at a parents' meeting at the secondary school in Aukštoji Panemunė, representatives of the authorities decried to the parents those persons who sign various papers, often without knowing themselves why they were doing so. To confirm the veracity of their words, they read the appropriate thoughts from the bishops' letter: "If you don't believe me, here's what your bishops say."
Only an insignificant number of the clergymen read aloud the entire letter: some did so because they did not grasp the significance of the situation, others—to appease the civilian authorities. Some of the clergymen read only the parts that dealt with churchly matters, leaving out the falsehoods. The others preached a sermon as usual on the above-mentioned Sunday.
After April 30 the KGB tried to obtain more precise information about the reading of the letter, even making use of the priests who were loyal to them in these efforts.
Even though the bishops' letter was sent out very late —some priests had received it but a few days before April 30—and there was no time for consultations, yet the challenge had been met successfully. The government organs have become convinced that they would not be able to make use of the majority of Lithuania's clergy for their designs.