Why have the interests of the World Council of Churches strayed so far from Christianity? Top-secret KGB files suggest the answer
By Joseph A. Harriss, 1993
Joseph A. Harriss, currently a senior editor with Reader's Digest's European Bureau in Paris, has covered international affairs, including religion, for 30 years.
"Before the opening worship service began at the last general assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC), in Canberra, Australia, delegates passed through the smoke of burning leaves. This was a pagan cleansing rite. The congregation then listened to recorded insect noises and watched a male dancer impersonate a kangaroo. The next day, as two painted, loinclothed aborigines cavorted, South Korean theologian Chung Hyun Kyung invoked spirits of the dead and exhorted the audience of more than 4000 to read the Bible 'from the perspective of birds, water, air, trees' and to 'think like a mountain [pure unadulterated pantheism].
Quite a display, but was it Christian? Some delegates protested against the animism, spiritism and New Age beliefs that were presented. 'Pagan culture has infiltrated the WCC,' says Vijay Menon, an Anglican delegate of Indian origin. 'I left that behind to become a Christian.'
Today the WCC, which includes 322 churches in over 100 countries, is a caricature of the ecumenical movement founded in 1948 by religious leaders who came mostly from Canada, the United States and Europe. (Six Canadian denominations, including the Anglican and United churches, with a total of about 3.5 million adherents, are WCC members).
In its desire to accommodate radical anti-Western and Third World pressure groups, the council has drifted from its original goal of Christian unity into the choppy waters of 'secular ecumenism' -- ministering to society through political activism. Now, Reader's Digest reveals a major reason why: For decades this vast organization has been a target for manipulation by decidedly unchristian forces.
'To some of the WCC leadership, Christian unity has become secondary,' comments Lawrence E. Adams, director of policy studies at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington. One WCC publication, International Review of Mission, extols the example of 'Hirwa, the green god, the Logos of Creation.' When a study group at the Canberra assembly wanted to consult the Bible on a point, a WCC staffer protested: 'Oh, no. It's Christian imperialism to suggest that the Bible has more to say than other books."
What has become primary is politics. 'The council has jettisoned traditional Christian missionary activity and substituted political action designed to establish a new kind of world order,' says Rachel Tingle, director of London's Christian Studies Centre.
To justify its political action, the WCC has encouraged 'contextual theologies' to suit local conditions. These include liberation theology for South and Central America, urban theology for inner cities in the United States, and a special theology for South Africa -- all interpreting the Bible selectively to support radicalism. 'Just as it was right for Jereboam to seek to oust Solomon,' says one WCC publication, 'it is right for all to throw off people from positions of authority.'
'This marriage of religion and revolutionary politics,' says Earnest W. Lefever, founding president of the Ethics and Public Policy Centre in Washington, 'is basically Marxist.'
How WCC programs have become politicized can be seen most clearly in the Program to Combat Racism (PCR). 'Around the world, Christians recognize the need for improving race relations,' says the Reverend Billy A. Melvin, executive director of the U.S. National Association of Evangelicals, 'but the WCC concentrates on the 'white institutional racism' of the 'international capitalist economic system.'
Since 1970 the PCR has distributed almost $13 million to more than 130 organizations in some 30 countries -- about half to revolutionary Marxist movements in Africa. It does not check to see that funds are actually used for humanitarian purposes. One grant of $108,000 went to the Patriotic Front in Rodesia (now Zimbabwe), which had murdered 207 white civilians and 1712 blacks, along with nine missionaries and their children.
In South Africa the WCC has long supported the African National Congress (ANC) -- whose leaders include members of the South African Communist Party -- with over $1.65 million in grants. Though ANC leadership has disavowed such tactics, its members have used terrorist methods, including 'necklacing,' in which a gasoline-soaked tire is hung around the victim's neck and set ablaze.
PCR grants, which totaled $476,885 in 1992, are so controversial that they are not made form the regular WCC operating budget but from the Special Fund to Combat Racism. The council refuses to revel names of Special Fund contributors or the addresses of grant recipients.
Now the WCC is shifting away from Africa in its focus, Barney Pityana, PCR director until the end of last year and a former leader of the South African Students' Organization, explains that the real crisis of the 1990s is capitalism that 'results in policies of racial discrimination, the resurgence of white fascist neo-Nazism, and the reliance upon law and order, policing, etc., to maintain control.'
In the United States, the PCR supports the December 12 Movement. This New York-based group of black activists has organized 'Days of Outage,' including one in 1989 during which protesters injured more than 40 police officers in a hail of bricks and rocks. Robert C. "Sonny" Carson, one of December 12's prominent members, is a convicted kidnapper who once denied he was anti-Semitic by declaring, 'I'm antiwhite.'
The Centre for the Study of Harassment of African Americans has received $34,000 in PCR grants in the last three years. The centre is an offshoot of the Legal Defense Fund, which was founded by Clarence Mitchell III of Baltimore when he and his brother Michael were struggling to pay $635,000in lawyers' fees. These stemmed from a variety of criminal charges and convictions, including Clarence's conviction for obstructing a federal grand-jury investigation into his ties to a drug kingpin.
Meanwhile, the WCC was strangely reticent on racism and oppression in communist countries. When the Ceusescu regime in Romania persecuted religious denominations, the WCC refused to speak out forcefully. Says Bishop Laszlo Tokes, who sparked Romania's 1989 revolt that toppled the communists: 'The WCC was not interested in the Church's fight for freedom.'
When religious dissenters in the former Soviet Union egged for support in the 1970s, the council said little. 'The WC failed to defend our Christian brothers in Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R.,' says Father Gleb Yakunin, a courageous Russian Orthodox priest who spent years in Soviet prisons, labour camps and exile for his faith. 'If the WCC had spoken out, the persecutor would have reduced their zeal.'
Why was the WCC largely silent about the crushing of religious freedom in the communist bloc? Why for the past 25 years has it strayed from its charter in order to support revolutionary and activist groups, oppose Western European defense policy and denounce capitalism? Secret files from the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency, provide at least part of the answer.
Father Yakunin, now a deputy of the Russian Supreme Soviet's Commission on Freedom of Religion, has examined top-secret monthly reports from the KGB Administration for Ideological Subversion. In an exclusive interview with Reader's Digest, he stated: 'The KGB had a plan to penetrate and manipulate the WCC. Orthodox priests who were WCC delegates were often KGB agents acting on Communist Party orders.'
How effective were they? 'In my view,' Yakunin said, 'the WCC's left-radical activities helped the Soviet block spread communist ideology in Africa, North and South America and the Far East.'
Witness one entry in the KGB reports:
August 1969- "Agents 'Svyatoslav,' 'Adamant,' 'Altar,' 'Magister,' 'Roshchin' and 'Zemnogorsky' went to England to take part in the work of the WCC Central Committee. Agents managed to avert hostile activities and to place agent 'Kuznetsov' in a high WCC post.'
The agent with the code name Kuznetsov was to have a long, productive career as a WCC Central Committee member. At that August Central Committee meeting in Canterbury, England, the organization moved in the direction the Kremlin wanted: The WCC proclaimed that member churches should 'become agents for the radical reconstruction of society.'
A careful study of KGB documents, co-ordinated with examination of records of the Russian Orthodox Church and other public reports, makes possible the identification of 'Kuznetsov.' He is Alexei Sergeyevich Buevsky, a lay member of the Church's Moscow Patriarchate's Foreign Relations Department -- and to this day a WCC Central Committee member. J. A. Emerson Vermaat, a Dutch scholar and journalist, has called Buevsky 'one of the most outspoken defenders of Soviet policy in numerous WCC meetings. He has helped draft important WCC documents on international affairs.'
Buevsky's presence on the committee gave his KGB contacts and unprecedented opportunity to influence the direction taken by the WCC. Another excerpt from KGB files bears witness to their success:
July 1989 -- 'According to a plan approved by the KGB leadership, efficient secret and organizational measures have been undertaken to ensure state security during events sponsored by the World Council of Churches in Moscow. As a result, the WCC Executive and Central committees adopted public statements (8), messages (3), which corresponded to the political course of socialist countries.'
The memos go on and on, with "Kuznetsov" popping up frequently.
In 1982 the WCC's Central Committee called for total nuclear disarmament. The statement came at a time when tensions were running high over NATO's decision to deploy Pershing missiles in Western Europe to counter Soviet SS-20s placed in Eastern Europe. In one passage the WCC asserted that 'much would be gained in terms of European stability if NATO were to be less dependent on nuclear weapons.' Yet the role the Soviets might play in this "stability" was not mentioned.
Buevsky, along with other agents, likely ensured that WCC Central Committee members from Eastern Europe toed the Kremlin line.
Regarding the election of Emilio Castro as WCC general secretary in 1985, a KGB memo confirms that its agents support Castro as 'a candidate acceptable to us.' A liberation theologian from Uruguay, Castro was vocal in his appreciation of Marxism. At a 1989 reception in the Kremlin, he addressed the guests as "comrades" and remarked that Karl Marx 'was dreaming out of the same biblical tradition from which we come ...in that common dream we hope that between us we will have many steps to take in common.
As the WCC marks its 45th anniversary this year, member churches around the world are beginning to question its activities. The Orthodox Churches, with some 150 million faithful, have condemned "dangerous trends in the WCC." The Most Reverend George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, says: 'The WCC's heart is in the right place, but it needs to be reformed. Fast."
It is doubtful, however, that its new general secretary, 55-year-old German theologian Konrad Raiser, is the man who can renew it. For ten years he served as deputy to Philip Potter, the former general secretary who was openly anti-Western and anticapitalist. In his first press conference, Raiser confirmed his commitment to continue PCR funding.
What can ordinary churchgoers do to nudge the WCC towards reform?
'First, they should raise questions with their church hierarchies about the WCC's activities,' advises Father Richard John Neuhaus, president of the Institute on Religion in Public Life in New York. 'They can also join a concerned renewal/reform group in their denomination, like the Methodists' Good News or the Presbyterian Lay Committee. Finally, and I say this most reluctantly, they can cut back their contributions by the percentage their church gives the WCC. This situation can be turned around by determined laymen.'
Having flirted with the paganism of Delilah and danced with the Salome of communist ideology, can the WCC return to the faith of its fathers? The Anglican Archdeacon of York, the Reverend George Austin, having watched some areas of WCC theology 'decline into gross heresy,' thinks it is too late. 'Perhaps the Spirit,' he states, 'is saying to the Churches that the WCC has serve its purpose and now must die."
© The Reader's Digest, February 1993