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Politics and religion in USSR; Soviets, nuclear arms, and Billy Graham

By Ned TemkoStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 18, 1982


Soviet policy makers seem to be taking a new, more sophisticated approach to wooing Western antinuclear advocates. In the process, the Russian Orthodox Church gets a potential boost.

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Signs of this emerged from last week's Moscow conference of ''World Religious Workers for Saving the Sacred Gift of Life from Nuclear Catastrophe.'' Meanwhile , the Rev. Billy Graham, invited here as an observer, made statements that puzzled a number of Westerners, including many of his strong supporters.

Dr. Graham, his aides explained, was intent on being a good guest. On departure from Moscow, the American evangelist seemed to explain why: he wants to return to the Soviet Union and preach ''from Siberia to the Black Sea.'' Should the Soviets permit this, they would be making a stunning departure from past policy on religion.

Dr. Graham was a good guest indeed. Asked on various occasions by foreign reporters whether he thought there was freedom of religion in the Soviet Union, he explained that the term was relative. But, he said, in a sense, churches in the USSR were healthier than in the US, and freer than in Britain.

Dr. Graham did preach once, as well, telling a jam-packed Baptist church that God could make the faithful better workers, more loyal citizens, ''because in the 13th chapter of Romans, we are told to obey the authorities. . . .''

The American visitor's behavior perplexed other Western clerics in town for the antinuclear conference, at least some Russian religious figures, and even a few Soviet officials, although this last group made it clear they didn't mind his performance in the least.

But the Soviet news agency Tass and other official news outlets made little of Dr. Graham's apologia for the authorities' attitude toward religion.

The priority issue for the Soviets last week was nuclear arms limitation. The priority audience appeared to be the antinuclear movement in the West. The priority forum: the Moscow conference.

The week-long meeting produced a formal ''appeal'' to world governments that, to many foreign observers, was surprising in its degree of evenhandedness toward East and West. The Kremlin, almost surely, was not surprised.

Although the conference began on a predictably pro-Soviet note, promptly reemphasized by a Syrian and a Sri Lankan delegate, a small group of American clerics then spearheaded a Western bid to prevent a mere one-sided condemnation of Reagan administration arms policy. The Americans, particularly Lutheran presiding Bishop David Preus of Minnesota, are said to have made it clear they would walk out if spurned.

The communique suggested by the Russian delegates, according to conference sources, endorsed the Soviet position on European nuclear forces and, in effect, called on the West to recognize how reasonable the Soviets are. But when American delegates demurred, changes were made. The final product was not completely evenhanded. The conference decried production of a neutron weapon and the ''doctrine'' of limited nuclear war - both items high on the list of Soviet indictment of US arms policy - but included no specific criticism of any Moscow weapons system.