The Soviet minister of religion says past officials "digressed" from Lenin and treated the churches rudely, but now under Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Soviet officials are taking a "realistic" approach.

Konstantin Kharchev, in an Associated Press interview Monday in Washington, spoke both of the past and of the new kind of coexistence Gorbachev is working out with organized religion.

"Both religion and the churches will live free under socialism, and that is the objective reality," Kharchev said, attributing the new attitude directly to Gorbachev.

"In the past, we perhaps did not have a proper understanding of the role of religion in the society," Kharchev said. "Now, within the processes of glasnost {openness} and democratization, we openly evaluate our way and plan the program for the future."

The change already is evident in the Soviet Union. Two prominent religious figures, Mother Teresa and Patriarch Dimitrios of the Greek Orthodox Church, visited in mid-August.

Karchev, in a meeting with Sen. Richard D. Lugar (R-Ind.) promised that all "prisoners of faith" will be released by November, the senator said Monday. According to Lugar, Kharchev said the Soviets will allow 12 new Catholic churches to open this month, and will permit the printing of 100,000 Bibles this year. A greater number cannot be printed because of a paper shortage, Kharchev said.

American Baptist groups are about to deliver 10,000 Bibles. Five thousand copies of a Hebrew Pentateuch -- the first five books of the Old Testament -- were shipped to Moscow from New York. And a kosher takeout restaurant will go up on the grounds of the Chorale Synagogue in the Soviet capital.

Because no kosher food is produced in the Soviet Union, New York Rabbi Arthur Schneier is going to Hungary to arrange for a refrigerated shipment of cured meats, fruit preserves, wine and cheese.

The rabbi, who sat in on the interview with Kharchev, is president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an ecumenical group of American religious and business leaders who try to promote religious freedom around the world.

Kharchev, who speaks some English but used a translator for precision, made no bones about the past while extolling Gorbachev's policies.

"There were very many mistakes on the side of the leaders with regard to religion," he said. "There was a time when we considered there would be no religion in a socialist society. And on the basis of this understanding, at some stages of our development, we made mistakes which were connected with such rude matters as administrative struggles with religious organizations."

By way of example, Kharchev cited the closing of church buildings. "But now," he said, "we took the realistic way . . . . first of all, to eliminate the mistakes of the past, and second so that the believers and the churches will feel themselves free and contented under socialism."

By Kharchev's account, the churches were partly to blame for the rocky past by their refusal to recognize the Soviet state. This, he said, "placed a stamp on further relationships."

But the Soviet official, whose title is chairman of the council on religious affairs, spoke without any sign of bitterness. He was far more critical of past practices of the state than of the churches.

"Very seldom we took religious literature from the West," he said. "But now we don't see any problem with this, and there is a wide exchange of religious literature now."

Kharchev stopped in Washington on his way to Los Angeles from the Chautauqua Institution in New York, where he and several other Soviet ministers participated in a conference with U.S. government officials.

Asked if the Soviets were reconsidering that religion and communism were in conflict, Kharchev took vigorous exception to the idea.

"In Lenin's decree about the separation of church from the state nowhere is it said we must press the churches," Kharchev said. "More than that, it was said anybody can believe in anything he or she wishes. And it was announced that both the religious organizations are equally free in propaganda actions. But then we digress from that. And now we are trying to find on a new level this original version, of the development of the principles of Lenin."