Russian Orthodox faithful began the joyous celebration of Easter Saturday night amid signs of growing official encouragement of religion as a positive force in the crisis-plagued Soviet Union.

Blue banners proclaiming, "Congratulations on Easter, let peace be in your hearts," and "Happy Easter, dear brothers and sisters" were strung across Moscow streets Saturday where previously there had been only red exhortations to the "worker's state" and the Communist Party.The official policy of atheism in the Soviet Union ended with the passage of a freedom of religion law last year, and the Russian Orthodox and other churches are enjoying a resurgence in the country.

Easter midnight services marking the Christian holiday of the resurrection of Jesus Christ were held around the country, in many cases in churches just recently returned by the state to religious control.

The Russian Orthodox Church follows the Julian rather than the Gregorian calendar and therefore marks Easter on April 7 this year.

The midnight service at Ephiphany Cathedral in Moscow, led by the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexei II, was broadcast live nationwide by central radio and television. Soviet Premier Valentin Pavlov and Russian republic leader Boris Yeltsin were among the VIPs attending in a clear signal of the official acceptance of religion.

An Easter morning service was scheduled in the famous St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square, which was just recently returned to the church and reconsecrated after decades of use only as a museum under Communist control.

"Three years ago, who could have imagined that in Moscow, the heart of atheism, our attitude toward Easter would be the same as to the "Red" days of the calendar Nov. 7 (Revolution Day) and May 1 (International Workers Day)," the government newspaper Izvestia said.

In the restive western Ukraine, Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky, the leader of the Ukrainian Catholic Church loyal to the pope, was to lead Easter services a week after returning from five decades of exile during Soviet persecution of his church.

Since Mikhail Gorbachev launched his reform policies six years ago, religion has been more acceptable in the Soviet Union, but the official emphasis on Easter celebrations this year was unprecedented.