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WCC Flunked Cold War Test: Ex-leader says council should have backed anti-Communist dissidents

Stephen Brown

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Ecumenical News International

IMSHAUSEN, Germany -- A former leader of the World Council of Churches (WCC) has apologized for the organization's tepid support of dissident movements in Eastern Europe in the waning days of the Cold War.

The Rev. Konrad Raiser said during a conference here that the WCC should have been more supportive of groups, such as Solidarity in Poland and Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, that opposed Communist regimes.

"While being aware of the situation and basically sympathetic to their struggle, the WCC gave priority attention to the struggles against racism and for justice and liberation in the southern countries," Raiser said during the July 16-18 conference on the Christian church and 20th century dictatorships.

"In retrospect, it would appear that the ecumenical organizations have not sufficiently recognized -- at least at the official level -- the historic legitimacy and the political potential of the dissident movements in the Communist countries," said Raiser, who retired at the end of 2003.

Organizations such as the WCC and the Conference of European Churches "tried to break through the Iron Curtain and to include the churches in Communist countries in the ecumenical movement," he said, but "in place of prophetic protest, the ecumenical movement concentrated on bridge-building and cooperation."

The conference was organized to coincide with the 60th anniversary of an attempt by dissident German army officers to kill Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944.

The ecumenical movement had been able to "make contacts and to keep open lines of communication across the so-called Iron Curtain, when few others could," said the Rev. John Arnold, of England, a former president of the Conference of European Churches.

For church leaders in Eastern Europe, Arnold said, the ecumenical movement was "a lifeline and oxygen supply combined, and the only means of engaging in public issues other than by simply supporting the 'peace policies' of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union."

There is no evidence that the church bodies helped prop up Communist regimes, said Arnold, chair of a committee on East/West relations for the former British Council of Churches. Still, the entry into the WCC of the major Orthodox churches from Eastern Europe after 1961 did "radicallychange the ethos of the (World) Council," he said.

"Its focus of concern shifted away from Europe to the Third World, and this was skillfully exploited by representatives of the ROC (Russian Orthodox Church) to sideline or at least 'relativize' the concern felt in many western European churches for persecuted Christians and dissidents," he said, adding:

"Official contacts were used to press particular cases, though that could not be made public. ... The lesson we learnt was that effective action is scarcely possible without the active involvement of the local church. At the world level, there was a painful contrast with the churches in the United States and South Africa, which were ready, willing and able to criticize their own governments."

Arnold concluded, "I prefer to say simply, 'No, we did not do enough.'"

Read this artice on the Presbyterian News Service website.

Posted 8/6/04



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