Gorbachev dispels 'closet Christian' rumours; says he is atheist

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made clear this past weekend that he is an atheist after European news agencies last week claimed that he had confirmed his Christian faith during a visit to the tomb of St Francis of Assisi in Italy.

Gorbachev, the last communist leader of the Soviet Union, confronted speculations that he had been a closeted Christian during an interview with the Russian news agency Interfax.

"Over the last few days some media have been disseminating fantasies - I can't use any other word - about my secret Catholicism, citing my visit to the Sacro Convento friary, where the remains of St. Francis of Assisi lie," Gorbachev said, according to an Interfax article posted Friday.

"To sum up and avoid any misunderstandings, let me say that I have been and remain an atheist," he stated.

Rumours had circulated for decades that Gorbachev was a Christian after he moved to loosen restrictions on religious worship and expressed to a party congress a year before the communist state dissolved that "spiritual rebirth is as essential to society as oxygen", according to the Chicago Tribune.

As a result, media agencies had jumped to conclusions when Gorbachev visited St Francis' tomb last Wednesday and was seen kneeling for half an hour in silence at the tomb.

But Gorbachev, who was baptised Russian Orthodox as a child, explained that his visit to the tomb was as a tourist and not a pilgrim. He acknowledged the important role religion plays in society and said he looks forward to visiting Orthodox churches in Russia, Catholic and Protestant churches in the United States and Europe, synagogues in Israel and mosques in the Arab world, according to Interfax.

"But all these years, it has never occurred to anyone to list me among followers of any faith on that basis," Gorbachev noted.

Back in Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church seemed unimpressed with Gorbachev's visit to St Francis' tomb.

"In Italy, he spoke in emotional terms, rather than in terms of faith," a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox patriarch Alexei II told the Russian media.

"He is still on his way to Christianity. If he arrives, we will welcome him."

Christians make up only about 17 to 22 per cent of Russia's population, according to the CIA World Factbook.