From the September/October, 1998 issue of Touchstone

Church News from Washington by Mark Tooley

Church News from Washington

by Mark Tooley

NCC Delegation Visits Fidel Castro

A National Council of Churches (NCC) delegation visited President Fidel Castro in June, enjoying six hours of conversation and dinner with the long-term dictator. “We congratulated Cuba on the tremendous growth of the churches,” said NCC General Secretary Joan Campbell. “We are obviously encouraged not only by the strength of the churches but also by their energy. The President affirmed that growth and said he would encourage more.” Castro expressed enthusiasm for a major “ecumenical event” to be held in Cuba. The NCC delegation promised to redouble its lobbying to overturn US sanctions against Castro’s regime. Thom White Wolf Fassett, General Secretary of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, said he is working to dispel “the myths that have been created around Cuba. . . . I become the student when I come to Cuba.”

Campbell expressed concern about “some missionaries” from the United States who were offering Cuban pastors money and clothing in exchange for “loyalty.” She did not explain how that assistance contrasts with the NCC’s own distribution of funds and material through Church World Service, which has distributed $7 million in aid to Cuba since 1992. Campbell and Fassett condemned proposed legislation before the US Congress that would mandate that all US humanitarian aid for Cuba go through “independent non-governmental organizations,” such as the Roman Catholic Church. Proponents of the law compare it to US efforts on behalf of Solidarity in Poland during the 1980s. The NCC responds that the law would violate the independence of private agencies providing aid to Cuba.

NCC Opposes Religious Persecution Bill

The National Council of Churches is opposing US legislation that would address the plight of persecuted Christians and other oppressed religious believers overseas. The proposed Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, now before Congress, would empower the US President to reduce or eliminate US aid to nations that engage in religious persecution. In April, the NCC hosted seven overseas religious leaders from Africa, the Middle East, Indonesia, Russia, and Pakistan to speak out against the proposal. “We are all working against religious persecution,” said Bishop Sammy Azariah, Moderator of the Church of Pakistan. “But economic sanctions oppress the very people who are trying to live normally.” A Muslim leader from Indonesia agreed. “If Washington, D.C. takes strong measures, it will create more tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims,” said Amien Rais, who chairs a community of 28 million Muslim Indonesians. “Economic sanctions are dangerous because of the social and economic impact on vulnerable people.”

Albert Pennybacker, the NCC’s Associate General Secretary for Public Policy, tried to explain why the NCC advocated comprehensive sanctions against the former white regime of South Africa but opposes reduced US aid to persecutors of religious groups. “We believe sanctions should be a matter of thoughtful, multilateral last resort, to be imposed only in consultation with the people they are intended to help,” he offered. “We are not hearing calls today from our overseas partners,” he insisted. Pennybacker did not mention that the NCC’s “partners” are typically religious groups that focus on good relations with the state or interfaith dialogue, as opposed to evangelistic outreach. He also objected to a “hierarchy of persecutions” that ranks religious liberty ahead of other human rights. Pennybacker urged more attention to the “scarcity and poverty” that he said engender persecution. “We must address these questions within a developmental context.”

Church-Backed Group Supports Abortion Rights for Children

The church-backed Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) is defending access to abortion for underage girls. RCRC is supported by the United Methodist, Presbyterian (USA), and Episcopal Churches, along with some Jewish groups and Catholics for a Free Choice. Although supposedly reflecting a Judeo-Christian perspective on abortion, RCRC echoes secular abortion-rights groups in opposing the Child Custody Protection Act, now before Congress. The act would prohibit transporting minors across state lines for an abortion to circumvent parental notification or consent laws.

Episcopal priest Katherine Ragsdale, RCRC president, testified in May against the bill before the US House Judiciary Committee. Calling it “punitive” and “mean-spirited,” Ragsdale recounted how she had herself transported an underage girl to an abortion clinic because the girl could not bring herself to talk to her parents. If the Child Custody Protection Act is passed, said Ragsdale, she as a priest would break such a law. Her ordination vow to “proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ” would preclude any compliance with the injustice of this legislation, she insisted. (Ragsdale has called access to abortion a “religious freedom.”) In explaining RCRC’s opposition to parental notification laws, Ragsdale has explained, “Children can’t trust their parents with this information.” She implies that not only abusive parents, but any parents who might elicit embarrassment or discomfort from their daughter are unworthy to be informed of their daughter’s pregnancy. Ragsdale, in place of parental notification laws, wants governments and schools to provide contraceptives to children, ostensibly to make abortion less frequent.

Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy ( in Washington, D.C.

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