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Soviet Ghosts Haunt the World Council of Churches By: Mark D. Tooley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, August 25, 2006


As one of his formative spiritual experiences, a top official in the World Council of Churches (WCC) fondly recalls attending a Soviet-front group’s conference in the old Czechoslovakia. In a recent official WCC news report, the Swiss-based ecumenical council interviews Rev. Walter Altmann, a Brazilian Lutheran theologian, former head of the Latin American Council of Churches, and the new moderator the WCC's totalitarian-sounding "central committee." Currently, he also heads the 700,000 member Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil.

"As a young pastor, at the height of the military dictatorship in Brazil, I traveled semi-secretly to Prague in 1968 to take part as a delegate in the Christian Peace Conference," Altmann reminisces. There is no further comment about the CPC event, much less any note of regret.

The Christian Peace Conference (CPC) was founded by a Czech, pro-Marxist theologian in the late 1950’s, though even he abandoned the CPC when it refused to criticize the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Based in Prague, it operated as part of the phalanx of various Soviet-front groups for churchmen, labor leaders, journalists, and peace activists. Operating in alliance with the Soviet-created World Peace Council (WPC) in Helsinki, the CPC faithfully defended communism and Soviet global initiatives, from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to martial law in Poland, to demands for Western disarmament. The CPC and the WPC, with other facades, were under the authority of the International Department of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. They received most of their funding from the Soviet Peace Fund, much of which was raised through the Russian Orthodox Church.

Apparently, the CPC no longer actively exists. It survived the implosion of the Soviet Union long enough to denounce the U.S. liberation of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein in 1991. And it never fully abandoned the Old Religion (Marxism, of course, not Christianity). As one CPC official wrote in 1990, "Nothing would be more damaging to the integrity of CPC than to abandon or renounce or deny, under the pressure of contemporary events, our abiding and radical commitment to a socialist vision of society."

After Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe, the CPC did express some regret for paying "too little attention to individual right sin Socialist countries," as recounted in Kent Hill’s The Soviet Union on the Brink. But the CPC planned to survive by battling the new phase of "world capitalism," which had begun its new "offensive through the internationalization of financial capital and the expansion of transnational companies." Still, without Soviet funding and ideological guidance, the CPC’s future was grim. The United Nations, with its usual dispatch, finally got around to de-recognizing the CPC as a non-governmental organization...in 2005.

During its salad days, the CPC was crucial in enlisting church groups to back Soviet foreign policy objectives. Its U.S. affiliate, Christians Associated for Eastern Europe (CAREE), was actually based in the Interfaith Center in New York, alongside the National Council of Churches and various U.S. denominational offices. Even more amazingly, during the 1980’s CAREE got funding for its Christian-Marxist dialogues from mainline Protestant agencies, Mennonites, and the U.S. Catholic Conference.

One-time CAREE chairman James Will admitted that "some Christians in the West see the CPC as an instrument of Communist propaganda." But he asserted, as reported in K. L. Billingsley’s From Mainline to Sideline, that the CPC is a "cooperative part of the ecumenical movement" and is "motivated by its own authentic Christian inspiration." CAREE made payments to CPC, and CAREE officials got free travel to CPC events on Soviet Aeroflot.

CPC leaders were active in the World Council of Churches (WCC), even serving on the WCC’s executive committee, and helping to ensure that the WCC was never critical of the Soviet bloc -- not that there was ever much chance of that. By the 1960’s and 1970’s, the WCC had essentially abandoned traditional Christian beliefs about salvation and evangelism. Instead, the WCC’s focus had become political and economic "liberation." The WCC’s agenda was almost indistinguishable from that of the CPC.

Many young theologians and pastors in the ecumenical movement, like the Rev. Walter Altmann, cheerfully attended CPC events. They were either naïve about the CPC’s role as a Soviet instrument or did not care.

Altman would devote much of his own subsequent career to espousal of Liberation Theology. "A particular interest of mine has been to seek convergences between the theology of the Reformation and liberation theology," Altmann recounts. "In the 1970s, at the time of the military dictatorships in Latin America, there was widespread close ecumenical cooperation in the field of human rights, with a significant contribution from the World Council of Churches."

Much of the ecumenical movement came to see socialism rather than free market democracy as the desirable alternative to military dictatorship in Latin America. Groups like the WCC actively supported Marxist liberation movement and even now refuse to criticize the Castro dictatorship, because it is "socialist." Those churches that abandoned traditional Gospel work in favor of leftist "social justice" have paid a price. Denominations like Altman’s Lutherans hardly have a bright future in Latin America, where there are at least 40 million evangelicals, many if not most of them Pentecostal.

In his recent WCC interview, Altmann noted the "the growth of Pentecostal churches" and expressed concern that "many of the new churches reject ecumenism and campaign against it, particularly if the Catholic Church is involved." Old evangelical-Catholic tensions are in some cases the factor for distrust of the ecumenical movement. But more broadly, the old ecumenism of the political and theological left has never had widespread, populist appeal in Latin America. Revealingly, the Latin American Council of Churches has depended primarily on money from the failing, and leftist old-line churches of North America and Western Europe.

Meanwhile, Altmann’s leadership at the WCC will be predictable, based on his past performance. At the start of the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, he condemned the liberation of Iraq as possibly the greatest tragedy since World War II, evidently eclipsing even the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides, among others. After 9/11, Altmann joined an ecumenical conference in Washington, D.C., to denounce the U.S. military response and expressed hope that Americans might benefit from feeling "vulnerable."

In the 1990’s, Altmann wrote to both President Clinton and Fidel Castro, criticizing both for their supposedly equal extremism. He expressed special alarm about the Helms-Burton Act, which allows U.S. citizens to sue foreign companies that are profiting from U.S. assets in Cuba that Castro’s regime had seized.

Altmann had a four hour dinner with Castro in 1999, during which he explained how Martin Luther had challenged the Catholic Church. Of course, Castro responded that he could identify with the Protestant Reformer in that regard. The Cuban tyrant also hailed Jesus as a "great social revolutionary."

So the influence of the old Soviet-front Christian Peace Conference (CPC) lives on, through Altmann, and many others, in leadership circles of the WCC and other ecumenical and mainline church organizations around the world. Thankfully, these groups have a future about as bright as CPC’s was after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

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Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He is the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.


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