• U.S.

Religion: The Smugglers of the Word

5 minute read

In the Soviet bloc, going the Gideons one better

All over the West, Bibles are as handy as the nearest paperback bookstore or hotel room. But for harassed Christians in the Soviet Union, a Bible can cost more than two weeks’ wages on the black market. Things are almost as bad, and sometimes worse, in many satellite nations. To fill the deeply felt need of millions, at the height of the cold war freelance couriers began systematic efforts to smuggle books to Christians in Eastern Europe. Today Bible smuggling is carried on by a network of at least 40 Protestant organizations pursuing the world’s most extraordinary missionary venture. Much support comes from U.S.-based organizations, notably L. Joe Bass’s Underground Evangelism and Michael Wurmbrand’s Jesus to the Communist World. At any one time, dozens of smugglers, both professionals and one-shot amateurs, may be crossing borders in Bible-bearing cars, vans or trains. The Bibles are given out free, paid for by Western contributors.

The political climate has changed considerably over the years, and there are those who question the usefulness of such trips now. Says General Secretary Robert Denny of the Baptist World Alliance: “There is no need to smuggle Bibles.” Paul Hansen of the Lutheran World Federation, in a major attack on the smugglers, asserts that even if Bibles are sometimes needed, the very act of smuggling harms Soviet bloc churches.

The United Bible Societies reports that it has legally delivered 12 million Bibles or New Testaments to Eastern Europe since World War II. Many of these were later confiscated, however, or were simply unavailable to common people. TIME’S David Aikman, who has just completed a tour as Eastern Europe bureau chief, reports that a Christian’s chances of buying a Bible openly are currently good in Poland, erratic in East Germany, difficult in Czechoslovakia and Hungary (where the purchaser’s name may go directly into a government dossier), extremely difficult in Rumania, virtually impossible in the Soviet Union and Bulgaria. Buying a Bible is an out-and-out crime in Albania. Besides Bibles, the smugglers provide essential religious literature otherwise unobtainable.

The professional smugglers themselves, a courageous and self-reliant lot who often hold passports from non-NATO nations, regard such discussions as academic. They know the joy they stir. Holland’s “Brother Andrew” of Open Doors, the man who pioneered smuggling in 1957, tells of running a vanload of Russian-language Bibles into Czechoslovakia in 1968, surrounded by invading Soviet tanks. Later he got a letter from a mother in the Soviet Union: “Thank you for giving our son a Bible when he was occupying Czechoslovakia.”

One organization has a well-guarded auto body shop that builds secret compartments; with ingenuity, 500 pocket-size Bibles can be stuffed into a Volkswagen bug. Besides literature, the teams sometimes bring in clothing, radios, even debugging equipment to foil police surveillance.

Though most recipients are Protestants, a Roman Catholic parish in Poland was smuggled a new motor for its pipe organ.

In the Soviet Union, the toughest target, 22 Bible-bearing vehicles were confiscated in 1977 alone. Border guards now come armed with probing tools and auto owners’ manuals. Some border checkpoints are even equipped with terminals to Western-made computer systems to check the record of any driver they stop. Czechoslovak guards in 1977 barred the entry of an American woman when the computer informed them that she had been thrown out of the Soviet Union two years before for Bible smuggling. Most people caught in the act are simply questioned for a few hours and then refused entry. The longest prison term to date was 3½ years, given by Czechoslovakia.

Top organizers rarely act as couriers.

In 1977 Sweden’s Slavic Mission made the mistake of sending two well-informed officials into the Soviet Union. Police held them for nearly six months’ interrogation and extracted damaging details on a number of networks, as well as plans to have young, Bible-toting Christians blitz the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Most smugglers are ordinary businessmen or tourists on one-time trips.

Usually they attend a crash course in how to handle themselves. In summer, hundreds of vacationing college kids turn up and volunteer. Those “after adventure” are turned down. So is anybody with a hippie look-customs officials are bound to check them for nonreligious contraband such as drugs or diamonds.

What about the deceit and lawbreaking such enterprise requires? Brother Andrew replies that God’s command to evangelize takes precedence over Marxist law. But he insists that he has never lied at the border. “If they ask me, ‘Do you have any Bibles?’ I’ll just smile and say, ‘Yes, a lot!’ But I pray hard before I go that they won’t ask me that question.”

Ironically, the long-term effectiveness of the Bible-smuggling operations now seems threatened by scandal in the U.S. Underground Evangelism and Jesus to the Communist World have lately struggled in a bitter and squalid feud run out of their California headquarters. The battle involves a $1.5 million defamation suit rising from charges and countercharges made by Wurmbrand about Bass’s personal behavior, and it threatens to spread to questions about Bass’s ways of accounting for some of the $8.7 million a year his group raises. The situation could take years to untangle. The two organizations together depend on contributions and account for nearly $17 million of the estimated $30 million a year raised for such ventures, and their embarrassing fight could do more harm to the program than anything Communist police and customs officers might dream up.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com