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Church council aided KGB, magazine says; renewed charges called 'vicious smear.' (World Council of Churches; Feb. '93 Reader's Digest magazine)

Renewed charges called |vicious smear'

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - An article in the February Reader's Digest magazine suggests that church members withhold funds from the World Council of Churches (WCC), saying the organization cooperated with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, spreading communist ideology.

The article is titled "The Gospel According to Marx." The magazine, which has a circulation of 17 million, made similar allegations nearly a decade ago.

According to the article, it was the influence of the KGB, the intelligence agency of the former Soviet Union, that guided the WCC "from its original goal of Christian unity" to "support revolutionary and activist groups, oppose Western European defense policy and denounce capitalism." The magazine accuses the WCC of being "strangely reticent" about supporting religious activists in the Soviet Union and other "Marxist" countries in past years. And it slams the WCC for catering to "Third World pressure groups" with "pagan" rites and "controversial" grants.

WCC General Secretary Konrad Raiser said the Digest offered an "extremely distorted and one-sidedly negative" view of the ecumenical organization, which includes more than 300 churches in 100 countries. WCC officials and recipients of WCC grants said in documents and in interviews last week with NCR that the article's author, Joseph A. Harriss, ignored facts and documents they gave him.

"It is a vicious smear" said John Swomley, professor emeritus of Christian social ethics at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo., and president of Americans for Religious Liberty. "They've pulled a lot out of context."

In a document it drafted last spring and is distributing now in response to the Reader's Digest's allegations, the WCC says that during the Cold War it struggled constantly with the need to relate to the officially sanctioned churches of Eastern Europe while at the same time maintaining contact with dissident individuals and groups in the East bloc.

"Occasionally the WCC received individual appeals. It took action on nearly all of them," said the document's authors, then WCC General Secretary Emilio Castro and Archbishop Aram Keshishian, moderator of the central committee.

One of the cases the WCC said it took up in 1980 was that of Father Gleb Yakunin, a Russian Orthodox priest, who, the Reader's Digest said, was jailed as a religious dissident.

Ironically, Yakunin emerges in the magazine's pages as the WCC's harshest critic. "The WCC's left-radical activities helped the Soviet bloc spread communist ideology in Africa, North and South America and the Far East," he said. The Digest said it was Yakunin who provided it with "top secret" KGB documents that, it said, demonstrate KGB efforts to infiltrate and manipulate the WCC.

The value of Yakunin's documents is the subject of some dispute. In a Jan. 15 letter to WCC's member churches, councils and central committee members, General Secretary Konrad Raiser wrote that the Digest's KGB material "includes nothing which has not been published by many European media during the past year." Harriss was given the WCC's responses to those reports, Raiser wrote, but "he has chosen not to take account of it in his presentation."

Swomley called attention to one of the passages the Reader's Digest quoted, purportedly a KGB report of a 1989 WCC meeting in Moscow: As a result of KGB-approved measures, it said, "the WCC Executive and Central committees adopted public statements ... which corresponded to the political course of socialist countries." By then, Swomley said, Moscow already had announced unilateral arms reductions.

Martha Molnar, a public relations officer at Reader's Digest's corporate headquarters in Pleasantville, N.Y., insisted that the KGB files the magazine quoted were very significant ones. But she refused to show the documents to NCR. "We wouldn't share our sources," she said.

Several church observers voiced suspicions that the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), a Washington think tank, had orchestrated the Reader's Digest's attack. In January 1983, soon after the first Reader's Digest article appeared, the IRD was featured on the television program "60 Minutes" with a very similar attack on the WCC. And last December the IRD published a paper - "What's the Truth about the WCC and the KGB?" - that appears to cite some of the KGB reports used by Reader's Digest.

Kent R. Hill, IRD's outgoing president, told NCR that Reader's Digest "initiated the article. We helped them. But the spin they put on it is their own. The basic facts of the piece are, by and large, accurate, but I think they underestimated the degree to which the WCC was well to the left of center before it had contact with the KGB."

Asked whether the IRD supported a campaign to cut off the WCC's funds, Hill replied," We don't have an official position on defunding."

Martha Molnar of Reader's Digest said the headline - "Do you know where your church dollars go?" - across a full-page ad the magazine took in The New York Times on Jan. 19 does not signify Reader's Digest's support for defunding the WCC.

"Reader's Digest doesn't have an editorial position on the issue," she told NCR. Reader's Digest concludes its article with Father Richard John Neuhaus advocating "reluctantly" that church members trim their donations by the amount their churches donate to the WCC.

Several observers said they thought the Reader's Digest's main preoccupation was not the KGB but issues of race. In its first paragraph, the article called one ceremony conducted at WCC's last general assembly in Canberra, Australia, "a pagan cleansing rite." It noted that, in another ceremony, "two painted, loin-clothed aborigines cavorted."

"The contempt that the article shows for people of color and for indigenous people deeply saddens me," the Reverend Joan B. Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, wrote in a Jan. 22 statement on the Reader's Digest article.

Almost one-half of the article is devoted to "paganism" and the WCC's Program to Combat Racism and its funding.

The Digest's 1982 attack appeared to have little effect on WCC's funding, but it may have deterred some people from supporting ecumenical programs, Jean Stromberg of the WCC told NCR. Asked about the potential damage the current article might do, she answered: "Inevitably, such things are a problem because they're believed by the people in the pews who may not take the initiative to read the full story."

But, so far, Stromberg said, "it is generating the right kind of questions from church members to their churches and to this office."
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Author:Hunter, Jane
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 12, 1993
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