Mikhail Gorbachev, the last communist leader of the Soviet Union, admitted publicly for the first time on Wednesday that he is a Christian.
Rumors had circulated for decades that Gorbachev was a “closet Christian,” but it was only confirmed yesterday when he made a surprise visit with his daughter Irina to pray at the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi in Italy. The former communist leader spent half an hour on his knees in silent prayer at the tomb.
"It was through St. Francis that I arrived at the church, so it was important that I came to visit his tomb," said Gorbachev, according to U.K.’s Telegraph newspaper.
"I feel very emotional to be here at such an important place not only for the Catholic faith, but for all humanity."
Until now, Gorbachev had only expressed pantheistic views such as “nature is my god,” according to the U.K. newspaper.
Gorbachev, 77, was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church and his parents are Christians. Moreover, the parents of his wife, Raisa, were devout Christians who died during World War II for having religious icons in their home.
Many had suspected that Gorbachev was forced to hide his faith because of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics)’s official stance as an atheist state.
Former President Ronald Reagan had allegedly told close aides that he suspected that his opponent during the Cold War was a “closet believer,” according to the Telegraph.
The revelation of Gorbachev’s faith also sheds new light on his meeting with Pope John Paul II in 1989. On the eve of his encounter with the late pontiff, Gorbachev said the Soviet Union had erred in long rejecting religion and needed its moral force to help make his plans for a restructured society work.
Besides praying at the tomb, Gorbachev during his Assisi visit also toured the Basilica of St. Francis and asked the monks there for theological books to help him understand the life of St. Francis.
Father Miroslavo Anuskevic, who accompanied the former Soviet leader, said Gorbachev was not recognized by any of the worshippers in the church and had “silently meditated at the tomb for a while.”
“He seemed a man deeply inspired by charity, and told me that he was involved in a project to help children with cancer,” reflected Anuskevic.
"He talked a lot about Russia and said that even though the transition to democracy had been very important for the world, it was very painful for Russia,” the priest added. “He said it was a country which has a great history, and also a great spirituality."
Christians make up about 17 to 22 percent of Russia’s population, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Russia is considered one of the least religious countries in Europe, with only 50 percent of its people saying they are religious and only seven percent describing themselves as highly religious, according to a major study on faith, conducted by German think tank Bertelsmann Foundation, released in December.