It was around 1997 that I visited the Minister of Religious Affairs of Lithuania, together with Dr. Bert B. Beach. At that time Dr. Beach was responsible in the headquarters office of the Adventist Church for the relations of our church with the governments in the countries where the church had a presence. I was at that time responsible for this portfolio in the 36 countries that belonged to the Trans-European Division. I don’t remember the name of this government official in Lithuania, but I do remember that it was a rather difficult conversation. The country had gained its independence from the Soviet bloc a few years earlier, and many aspects of the church-state relationships still had to be settled. At that time the number of Adventists in Lithuania was still very limited and the church was not yet officially recognized.
The purpose of our visit was to ask the minister to grant our church official recognition. He said that the new laws forced him to grant such recognition, but that he would not do so wholeheartedly. We asked him why he as reticent. He then told us that he was a Roman Catholic believer and that, because of his faith, he had spent quite a few years in a prison camp. His faith was very important to him. But he had heard repeatedly from Adventists that he belonged to “Babylon” and was not a real Christian. We offered our sincere apologies and emphasized that this was not the official view of the Adventist Church.
I was reminded of this experience when reading the recently published autobiography of Tomás Halík, a Czech Catholic priest. Several of his previous books were also published in Dutch. In his autobiography he tells his readers how he became a Christian, studied psychology and theology and became a priest. For many years he had another job and could only exercise his priesthood in the deepest secret. With great danger for his life he played an important role in the underground church during the Soviet occupation. His story of how he served his church for years, despite heavy persecution, and remained faithful to his faith is impressive. From my Adventist point of view his theology may not be correct on a number of points, but that does not detract from the greatest possible respect I have for him as a fellow Christian.
During the Soviet period many Adventists also endured intense difficulties because of their faith. Dr. Daniel Heinz, head of the archives for the history of Adventism at the Adventist Friedensau University in Germany, has for years been investigating the fate of oppressed and persecuted Adventist church members in the former Soviet Union. With a team of Russian-speaking graduate students, he tries to identify the Adventist victims of the Gulag by comparing the old membership lists of local Soviet congregations throughout the Sovjet Union with data in the archives that are now accessible. The research shows that more than 4,000 Adventists lost their lives during that time due to repression and persecution. This is about one third of the church members in the former Soviet Union.
We should not trivialize the theological differences between Christians of various persuasions. However, these differences fade away when we think of what Christians with different theological beliefs have suffered for their faith. I am sure that is also how God sees this.