Mikhail Gorbachev, the last communist leader of the Soviet Union, paid an unexpected visit Wednesday to the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi in Italy, where he reportedly spent nearly a half-an-hour in silent meditation.
Rumors of Gorbachev being a "closet Christian" have circulated for decades and were revived yesterday when he made the surprise visit with his daughter, Irina.
"It was through St. Francis that I arrived at the Church, so it was important that I came to visit his tomb," said the former communist leader, according to London'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."
Gorbachev, 77, was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church as a child and his parents, both deceased now, were Christians. Moreover, the parents of his late wife, Raisa, were devout Christians who died during World War II for having religious icons in their home.
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.
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.
Notably, however, on the eve of his encounter with Pope John Paul II in 1989, 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.
Furthmore, at the end of a November 1996 interview on CSPAN's Booknotes, Gorbachev described his plans for future books, stating "I don't know how many years God will be giving me, [or] what His plans are."
In the past, Gorbachev had only expressed pantheistic views such as "nature is my god," according to the Telegraph.
Besides kneeling before the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi, 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 the German think tank Bertelsmann Foundation and released in December.
Correction: Monday, March 24, 2008:
An article on Thursday, Mar. 20, 2008, about former communist leader Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi in Italy incorrectly reported that he had admitted publicly for the first time that he is a Christian. While Gorbachev said he "arrived at the Church" through St. Francis and spent nearly half-an-hour on his knees in silence at the tomb, the former Soviet leader did not make any specific statements regarding his personal faith.