During the 1970’s and 1980’s the Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC), to which hundreds of Protestant and Orthodox communions belonged, routinely espoused pro-Soviet and anti-Western stances. It even funded Marxist guerrilla groups. Critics assumed that the WCC was simply naively captive to Liberation Theology, which tried to exchange salvation for class warfare and revolution.
But a new book by a Bulgarian author reveals that the KGB and its Bulgarian intelligence affiliate exploited the Bulgarian Orthodox Church for direct influence on the WCC and the Conference of European Churches. In “Between Faith and Compromise,” Bulgarian historian Momchil Metodiev chronicles how the Soviets and their Bulgarian proxies employed the Bulgarian Orthodox and WCC to promote Soviet strategic goals globally.
“Participation of the Bulgarian church in ecumenical organizations was not inspired by the idea of interdenominational dialogue and co-operation,” Metodiev reported amid his book’s release this month. “If, in popular perceptions, state security is classified as a state within the state, then the ecumenical activity [conducted by Soviet bloc representatives] could be classified as a church within the Church,” wrote Metodiev, who has researched Bulgarian communist archives for the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson Institute in Washington, D.C.
According to Metodiev, Bulgarian intelligence had already identified the WCC as an “object of penetration” even before the Bulgarian and other East Bloc churches joined the WCC in 1961. He also explains in his book how East bloc intelligence services and communist committees on church affairs collaborated to influence ecumenical groups like the WCC. Metodiev writes that during the 1970’s, Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Nikodim of Leningrad, at the KGB’s behest, led this collaboration, while Bulgarian Metropolitan Pankratii of Stara Zagora did his part in Bulgaria. Nikodim, who unsurprisingly worked closely with the Soviet-front, Prague-based Christian Peace Conference, became a WCC president in 1975 after browbeating Third World delegates with threats of a Soviet-aid cut-off to their countries if they did not cooperate.
East Bloc intelligence services, working through East Bloc churches belonging to the WCC, helped to ensure that the WCC focused its critique on the United States and its allies, while deflecting any attempted interest in human rights abuses in the East Bloc. Metodiev says a rare exception was the WCC’s debate at its 1975 Assembly in Nairobi, when some delegates tried to address Soviet repression of religion. At that gathering, a Swiss delegate named Jacques Rossel proposed this brief stance: “The WCC is concerned about the infringement of religious freedom, especially in the Soviet Union. The General Assembly respectfully asks the government of the USSR to abide by Article 7 of the Helsinki Final Act.”
Even such a mild proposed criticism ignited a firestorm of controversy within the reliably far-left WCC and failed to get the required two thirds votes from WCC delegates. A satire appeared in the WCC exhibition hall spoofing the conference theme of “Christ Liberates and Unites” by opining: “Christ has liberated Jacques Rossel to make a motion, he united the East European delegates – but will he divide the WCC movement?”
Amid all this ruffling of normally calm pro-Soviet feathers inside the WCC, the delegates approved a new compromise resolution the next day that nonchalantly noted having “spent considerable time debating the alleged non-observance of religious freedom in the USSR” and concluded that “churches in the different parts of Europe live and work under greatly differing conditions.” Even this non-criticism of the Soviets was too much for the Russian Orthodox delegates, who abstained in protest over the discomfiting “atmosphere” the discussion had unpleasantly enflamed. After that 1975 episode, the WCC would largely avoid any attempt at even tacitly admitting to any lack of religious freedom in the East Bloc.
Metodiev’s book addresses the 1975 incident and also reveals that Soviet and Bulgarian intelligence ensured the selection of Bulgaria’s Todor Sabev as the WCC deputy general secretary.
Sabev was a seminary professor in Sofia, Bulgaria and founded the Institute for Church History and Archives of the Bulgarian Patriarchate for the Bulgarian church. He became almost immediately involved with the WCC after the Bulgarians joined, serving on the WCC’s Central and Executive Committees in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In 1979 he became the WCC deputy general secretary, focusing on WCC ties to Orthodox Churches and Roman Catholics until he retired in 1993. “A devoted friend and colleague, he gained the trust and confidence of all those he has worked with,” recalled then WCC General Secretary Samuel Kobia when Sabev died in 2008. “He will be remembered for his kindness and openness, his readiness to serve all at all moments and under all circumstances. Because of his personality combining moral authority and human warmth, he played the role of bridge-builder between the East and the West, between Orthodox and other member churches of the WCC, between the fellowship of member churches and the Roman Catholic Church.” Of course, Kobia did not mention Sabev’s long service as an agent of East European communism.
In a report by Ecumenical News International (ENI), a WCC official tried to minimize the revelations without explicitly denying them. “These allegations are not new,” insisted Martin Robra, a WCC program director. “Even during the years of the Cold War, it was known that church representatives coming from communist countries had the obligation to report about their activities abroad to their country’s authorities.” Of course, during the Cold War, the WCC never acknowledged this situation and preferred to pretend that East Bloc churches were free agents no more manipulated by their governments than were Western churches. “WCC proceedings and policies were, as they are today, public. There were no real ‘secrets’ to be disclosed,” Robra claimed to ENI. “It was far more important to nurture relationships between the churches across the ‘Iron Curtain’ that divided the nations and to support them as much as possible.”
Only after the collapse of East Bloc communism did some WCC officials sheepishly admit they should have said a bit more about religious oppression under communism. But they also disingenuously claimed that their cooperation with East Bloc churches and even East Bloc governments had opened doors that facilitated the Cold War’s peaceful conclusion. “The stances taken by the WCC in favor of justice and peace did not follow any KGB script, but the Gospel of Christ, the prince of peace whom we meet among the most vulnerable and suffering people,” Robra assured ENI.
Books like Metodiev’s, based on research in communist archives, increasingly are confirming that the WCC and other religious groups did follow the KGB’s script during much of the Cold War. The question is, as the WCC continues his far-left advocacy, whose script does it follow now?