MOSCOW -- Evangelist Billy Graham, returning to the Soviet Union today to view the millennium celebration of Christianity in Russia, raised a furor in a 1982 visit by saying the Russian church was freer than Britain's.
A U.S. official said Tuesday that the American preacher, who made two controversial visits in 1982 and 1984, would arrive in Moscow today from Sweden.
The official said Graham, 69, would see events connected with the 1,000th anniversary of Christianity in Russia.
In his two visits to the Soviet Union in 1982 and 1984, Graham concentrated on condemning nuclear war and sin, but became the center of furor when he responded to reporters' questions about the state of religion in a country that proclaims atheism as official policy.
'In Great Britain they have a state church,' Graham said when departing in 1982. 'Here the church is not a state church. It is a free church, not headed officially as the Church of England is headed by the queen.'
Returning in 1984 for a second visit to the Soviet Union as a guest of Soviet authorities, he toured four cities over 12 days and said it was 'wonderful that in a country that officially professes atheism so many churches are open.'
Since coming to power in November 1917, communist authorities have closed 90 percent of all churches. At the time of the revolution there were more than 70,000 parish churches. Today, 7,000 'are working,' as the Soviet phrasing goes.
The crowds at the churches that Graham was shown by his hosts in 1982 also impressed him.
'You never get that in Charlotte, North Carolina,' Graham said at one point, comparing the attendance to that in the city of his birth.
The Russian Orthodox Church, with 30 million to 50 million believers, is run by a civilian Council of Religious Affairs. Since 1929, Soviet law has forbidden any type of religious instruction outside the home and bars the church from charity work.
Gorbachev's liberalism, however, has touched the church. He has allowed more parish churches to open, and has promised new legislation that may lift the ban on religious teaching and charity work.
The Soviet leader has also given back to the church some of its holiest sites, including the Danilov Monastery that President Reagan visited last week during the Moscow summit.
Representatives from most major religions, including the Roman Catholic Church, have sent official delegations to the Soviet Union to participate in the millennium celebrations which started Sunday.