Documentary links US religious groups to Latin American policy

A documentary that combines a volatile mixture of religion with revolution may fire public broadcasting's biggest controversy of the year. It clearly condemns those segments of the Christian right in the United States which it says are helping to carry out ''God's will'' in Latin America through antiguerrilla activity.

The Gospel and Guatemala (PBS, Friday, Aug. 3, 10-11 p.m., check local listings) explores the connection between Gospel Outreach, an obscure fundamentalist church with headquarters in Eureka, Calif., and Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, the now-ousted President of Guatemala, who took office through a military coup in March of 1982.

According to Stephen Talbot and Elizabeth Farnsworth, co-producers of the docmentary for KQED, San Francisco, General Rios Montt, with the aid of his Gospel Outreach advisers, presided over one of the bloodiest counterinsurgencies in the history of Latin America. Amnesty International charged the Rios Montt government with repeated massacres of peasants in war zones when he was being aided by Gospel Outreach.

The documentary follows the exotic odyssey of Gospel Outreach from its days as a 1970 ''Jesus Freak'' hippie commune to its ''baptism by fire'' in Guatemala. There - by dint of its connection with Rios Montt, a convert, - it entered the halls of government in a country overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. The film describes the movement as ''a blend of new evangelism and old-style military regime.''

Interviews with religious and political leaders follow the growing entanglement of church and state in Guatemala, and the film does not hesitate to probe into ugly situations where it finds them. In addition to its focus on Gospel Outreach, the documentary makes it clear where it believes the real problem lies: the increasing influence of conservative Christian groups in the formulation of US foreign policy in Latin America.

''The Gospel and Guatemala'' is more a political diatribe than an artful filmwork. It will undoubtedly be accused - and in part rightly so - of oversimplification, antireligious bias, and of propounding a left-wing point of view. But in fact it is a brash, brave, biting documentary which is determined to sound a warning signal.

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