An unusual press release from the Soviet Embassy here painted in glowing terms the "festive Passover service" that it said would draw "about 1,500 believers" to the newly refurbished Moscow synagogue for the traditional Jewish festival.
But through Amnesty International came a searing appeal for help from the daughter of Vladimir Shelkov, who already has spent 24 of his 83 years in prison and who was sentenced last month to five years at hard labor for his religious activities as a leader of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Soviet Union.
According to the Soviet Embassy press release, Jews on Passover eve were expected to "gather at the synagogue, after which the faithful will go home and take part in the Passover seder. They will drink the traditional four glasses of grape wine, and there will dancing and merrymaking."
But there was little merrymaking reflected in the impassioned appeal of Lepshina Shelkova Dina Vladimirovna for intervention on behalf of her aged father as well as for her husband, Ilya Lepshin, who was sentenced with him.
Expressing concern for her father's health, she said the "many months" of pretrial imprisonment had weakened him.
As for her husband, she wrote, "during 10 months of his pretrial imprisonment we didn't know anything about him and were not even sure if he were alive because clothing which we sent to him was refused."
On March 23, the district court in Tashkent, the capital of the Uzbek Republic of the U.S.S.R., sentenced Shelkov and Lepshin to five years at hard labor and confiscated Shelkov's house where his bedridden wife lived along with several of their children. Three other church leaders also were sentenced.
According to a report from Amnesty International, the Nobel-prize-winning organization for aid to political prisoners, the five-year sentence, because of Shelkov's "age, poor health, and isolation in the KGB prison since March 14, 1978, when he was arrested, can become the death penalty for him."
Shelkov, who according to his daughter has been a lifelong believer and since 1949 the chairman of the All-Union Church of True and Free Seventh-day Adventists, was charged with distributing false information about religious persecution in the Soviet Union.
Such a charge "is a common accusation used againstmembers of the human rights movement in the U.S.S.R. who, united by principles of humanity and justice, have demanded freedom of speech, conscience and information which are guaranteed by Soviet and international law," according to the Amnesty International statement.
The statement points out that both the U.S.S.R. constitution and the Helsinki Accords, signed by the Soviet Union in 1975, guarantee the right to religious belief and practice.
Amnesty International called the trial of Shelkov and the other Adventists "in violation of all those laws and agreements."
In accordance with Amnesty International policy the organization is appealing to sympathizers to write Soviet leaders protesting the trials.
The Soviet Embassy press release on Passover in Moscow reported that the bakery of the Moscow Jewish community was scheduled to produce 150 tons of matzoh, the unleavened bread used by Jews during the eight days of Passover.
In years past, the refusal of Soviet authorities to permit the baking of matzoh was a matter of international controversy. Jewish organizations in the west, particularly the United States, annually attempted to send large quantities of matzoh into the country.
The official Soviet communique also reported that kosher butchers were detailed to a poultry far near Moscow and a slaughterhouse "to perform the rituals connected with preparing kosher meat and poultry."
The statement added that a "a specail kosher dining room operates at the [Moscow] synagogue where the yeshiva students, staff members of the synagogue and some older members who find it hard to prepare their meals at home have their lunches and dinners."
Irene Manekowsky of the Washington Committee on Soviet Jewry said she believed the figures for the amount of matzoh provided were "greatly inflated. They have been allowing them to make matzoh in both Moscow and Leningrad, but it's nothing like that amount," she said.
Manekowsky, who is in constant touch with emigrants from the Soviet Union and also has visited there, also discounted the press release accounts of the "kosher dining room." "There's no kosher dining room at the synagogue," she said. "There's a little room where some of the old people come and a few students who want to study with them. There is no teaching; no one is allowed to teach. It's just a small room where they sit and study with the old people."
She added that "most young people are afraid to come to the synagogue, which is full of informers." Young persons would attend synagogue at their peril, she said. If you do so, she added, "you're marked; you're marked as a believer. The same is true for other religions," she said.