When Billy Graham goes to Moscow

Evangelist Billy Graham has accepted the invitation of the Soviet religious leadership, which, fulfilling the Politburo's plan, will stage a ''peace'' conference in Moscow this month.

Can he do this without violating the law of the God whom he exalts in his crusades?

That is the issue starkly posed by Lyuba Vashchenko, one of the Siberian Christians who, on June 27, 1978, forced their way past the armed guards surrounding the American Embassy in Moscow.

In a telephone call April 23 to a convocation of Pentecostal pastors at the United Pentecostal Church in Billings, Montana, Lyuba Vashchenko read the text of a letter to Dr. Graham which had been delivered to his Minneapolis headquarters a week earlier by the secretary of the Society of Americans for Vashchenko Emigration (SAVE).

She strongly protested acceptance by Dr. Graham and other Western church dignitaries of invitations to a conference masterminded by those who flout the Helsinki Final Act and other charters of international human rights law. She urged Dr. Graham not to cooperate with the persecutors but, instead, ''to ask the Soviets to honor the (Helsinki) agreement they have signed and never fulfilled.''

''If you do decide to come here,'' she wrote, ''would you please use the chance to ask the Soviets to allow us to leave the country before the conference? . . . If you come, we hope that you will meet with us.''

According to a report in the Billings Gazette, the coordinator of Dr. Graham's Moscow trip said the evangelist was aware of the embassy group but would not cancel his visit. He said Dr. Graham could not arrange in advance ''a sidetrip to the embassy,'' since the presence of the six Christians there had turned the situation into ''a legal matter and . . . not a purely religious'' one.

Dr. Graham is evidently prepared to incur the displeasure of the Soviets by visiting Jewish ''refuseniks'' in Moscow. And such visits by Western dignitaries are welcome and essential in maintaining pressure on the Soviet government for the release of the would-be emigrants.

But, despite the views of Lyuba Vashchenko, of the Reagan administration, of many evangelical Christians, and of human rights advocates, Dr. Graham refuses to schedule a visit to the Christians staying in the US Embassy.


Many ''mainline Christians,'' including the National Council of Churches--not to mention the World Council of Churches--only feel comfortable dealing with their Soviet counterparts, the leaders of the officially tolerated and manipulated churches in the USSR.

After all, it is dangerous to visit the ''underground churches'' and impossible to schedule meetings with ''illegal Christians,'' who, like their predecessors in the catacombs of Rome, are not licensed to worship by the state. These people turn up most inconveniently at all hours at one's hotel room, just a step ahead of the secret police, or whisper frantic pleas for help from public telephone booths.

Mainline Christian leaders prefer to deal with the Moscow Patriarch, whom the Soviet authorities permit to wear the robes of a patriarch, or with the ''legal Baptist'' pastors, who have received from the Soviet state a nice church building for their meetings, together with KGB interpreters for the occasions when foreign Protestant ministers are allowed to preach.

So Dr. Graham will preach in the Baptist church in Moscow, where members of several officially registered Protestant sects are licensed to meet under the tight control of the KGB and of pastors who, broken by more or less terrible pressures, have made their compromises with the Soviet state.

As Lyuba Vashchenko points out, only Dr. Graham will not see or hear, or be seen or heard by, ''those Christians who decay in prison cells because they choose to follow God's commandents rather than . . . compromise with the atheistic spirit'' of the Soviet state. Few of these, or of their persecuted fellow-believers who struggle to maintain their faith outside the prisons, forced-labor camps, and psychiatric hospitals, will ever know that Billy Graham has visited the Soviet Union. Some of them already wonder why they are suddenly being subjected to increased persecution and tightened surveillance--measures designed to prevent ''illegal Christians'' from approaching the Western church hierarchs in Moscow.

Many in both East and West believe that no state has the right to divide Christians into ''legal'' and ''illegal'' sects or to ''register'' some to worship, while others are placed beyond the law, imprisoned, or subjected to the official kidnapping of their children simply because they insist upon bringing them up in the faith of their fathers.

Where does Dr. Graham stand?

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