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Theology and Political Issues Mix

World Council of Churches 7th assembly takes stands on public topics, including Gulf war

BRIDGING political issues with theology is a tricky business. ``We have to pay careful attention to what is the reaction of governments in the area to Christians in their own country when we say something worldwide,'' says Janice Love, co-moderator of the Public Issues Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC), which has just concluded a two-week meeting here for its seventh assembly. For example, when the WCC complimented the United Nations on its actions to halt the invasion of South Korea by North Korea, Chinese Christians experienced some backlash. Today, Ms. Love says, all political statements of global significance are negotiated with the local member churches. ``That doesn't mean they have veto power over what we do, but it would be stupid for us to complicate the situation further or make their lives more miserable by something that we did from an uninformed perspective,'' sh e says.

This WCC policy also has its drawbacks. After consulting with the church leaders in Romania, the WCC refrained from criticizing the Romanian authorities' use of military force against dissenters. Rev. Laszlo Tokes of the Hungarian Reform Church criticized the WCC for being too timid. ``We admit we have made mistakes, but if you ask anyone who analyzes it, the need to protect lives is just as important as being prophetic,'' Love says.

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To a lesser extent, the WCC has treaded a fine line in addressing the Persian Gulf war. The WCC statement, which called for an unconditional cease-fire, also condemned Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait. Not all members agreed with the statement, which says, ``War promises no lasting solution for the festering wounds of the Middle East....'' The Church of England, for example, called the war ``justifiable.'' Aware that the issue is potentially divisive, the Public Issues Committee wrote a seven-page explan ation of how it reached its conclusions. Love says that any member who does not go along with the statement can go on the record as a dissenter.

More issues addressed

The public-issues themes were decided this past January by the WCC's four committee members, elected representatives of different regions and countries. Once the meeting began here, however, the WCC opened up the process to the delegates. It received 30 requests on 18 different subjects. As a result of the canvassing, the WCC made additional statements on the violence in El Salvador and Sri Lanka as well as one on the environment.

Criticism is not new to the World Council of Churches. Since its founding in 1948, the WCC has taken up many controversial subjects. In its first meeting, then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles debated Czech theologian Joseph Hromadka on the church and the cold war.

In the 1950s, it spoke out against racial segregation, in 1969 it recognized the rights of the Palestinian people, and in 1975 it condemned human-rights violations in Latin America. At its meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1983, the WCC addressed the issues of disarmament, apartheid, and the rights of Canada's native groups.

This year, the council, composed of 214 member churches, focused on the land rights of indigenous people and conflicts, such as the turmoil in the Baltics, South Africa, and, of course, the Gulf war. Interspersed among the meetings, however, were press conferences on the plight of Filipino mail-order brides, the reunification of Korea, and WCC relations with the Roman Catholic church.

Church leaders claim that taking off the political gloves does not alienate the flock. Sir Ron Wilson, president of the Uniting Church in Australia, says only a minority of his parishioners believe ``religion and politics don't mix.'' And the Rev. George Carey, the Anglican Archbishop-elect of Canterbury in Britain, says theology is a guide to political decisions. ``Freedom and justice are very much theological.''

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`The spiritual dimension'

Some theologians believe the World Council of Churches has gone too far. Bong Rin Ro, executive secretary of the World Evangelical Fellowship, based in Seoul, says, ``We are all for justice and equality, but the churches will not grow without the spiritual dimension.'' Mr. Ro, along with 70 other conference attendees, appealed to the council to place more emphasis on the Holy Spirit. He believes too much emphasis on public issues has hurt the churches' members. ``In [South] Korea, there is very little e mphasis on public issues and we are opening up six new churches every week,'' he says.

Ro is unlikely to keep the WCC from taking up unpopular causes. ``Wherever we go we always work for those who are poor, those who are outcasts in society,'' says Rev. Emilio Castro, the WCC's general secretary. ``We believe there is something in the perspective of the downtrodden which which will bring us closer together.''

Mistreatment claimed

This year, for example, the WCC decided to visit two Aboriginal settlements in Australia's outback. After the visit, members of the Public Issues Committee held a press conference here and accused the Australian government of genocidal treatment of the Aborigines.

The WCC knew that the Aboriginal issue would be touchy. ``Some of that material is provocative to the government, and we intentionally made our activity in that area high profile,'' Love says. She is quick to point out, however, that criticism is not just directed at Australia.

The United States, for example, is singled out for its treatment of native Americans. And the WCC is already trying to focus attention on the adverse effect on American Indians of the celebration of Columbus's 1492 landing in America.

The land rights of indigenous people, in fact, will be a continuing concern of the WCC. ``Indigenous people are under extreme pressure all over and we are saying to the governments, `You can't do that. We are watching you and will continue to do that,''' Love says.

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