When American church leaders develop ties with officials of Soviet churches, and participate in events such as the peace conference held May 10-14 by the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, whose purposes are served?
Are naive idealists being duped and manipulated to produce communist propaganda?
''I don't consider myself duped,'' says the Rev. Arie Brouwer, general secretary of the (Dutch) Reformed Church in America, who chairs a National Council of Churches (NCC) committee engaged in dialogue with Soviet churches. He took a leading role in the Moscow conference.
Three other denomination heads, Stated Clerk William P. Thompson of the United Presbyterian Church, President Avery Post of the United Church of Christ, and President David Preus of the American Lutheran Church, were among some two dozen American participants, out of a conference total of 590 from 90 countries. Although attending as individuals, US delegates caucused occasionally, with the Rev. Mr. Brouwer as their ''convenor.''
Interviewed here, Mr. Brouwer reflects on the experience and the general controversy surrounding Soviet relationships. ''We knew that the Soviet government would try to use the conference, but it was a risk we had to take,'' he says.
That risk was taken despite official discouragement. ''As far as I know, no one was directly asked not to go,'' he says. ''But one of our people was invited to the State Department and told there were plans to give (President Leonid) Brezhnev a peace medal. This was cited as an example of how the conference would be used for propaganda. We found the report had absolutely no basis.''
Why did he go?
''One reason was the issue of the nuclear arms race and world peace,'' he says. Delegates met under the title of World Conference of Religious Workers for Saving the Sacred Gift of Life From Nuclear Catastrophe. ''We are trying to build people-to-people bridges, and we believe this is even more important now when our government is taking such a negative stance toward the Soviet government.''
A second reason, Mr. Brouwer says, was to aid the Soviet church.
''The Soviet government is certainly seeking to use the church'' he says. ''But the more effective the church is in making contacts externally, the more independence it has internally.''
Some Westerners charge that official church leaders in the Soviet Union are agents of the state, and that the only true churches are those defying the government on demands such as registering.
Although the Soviet government doubtless tries to infiltrate the churches, Mr. Brouwer says, not enough is known to conclude that any particular individual is an agent. On the other hand, he says he has seen leaders of ''registered'' churches stoutly assert Christian convictions against the Marxism of state officials.
The NCC first exchanged delegations with Soviet churches in 1956. Stepping up dialogue in 1979, council representatives have been meeting with Soviet church leaders about once a year, normally after central committee meetings of the World Council of Churches.
Far from ignoring Soviet oppression of religion, he says, US delegates went to Moscow with a serious concern for believers in prison. ''We used our opportunities for meeting with government officials to register our concern,'' he says. ''We also visited the Siberian Pentecostals (who have been living in the US Embassy in Moscow while trying to leave the Soviet Union).''
In follow-up meetings with Elliott Abrams, who is the US human rights secretary, the Rev. Mr. Brouwer and other denomination heads discussed the Moscow conference. They argued that breaking communications would be more effective where the United States is ''formally allied,'' as with South Africa, than where it is ''formally opposed,'' as in the Soviet case.
Evangelist Billy Graham was badly treated by the US news media, the Rev. Mr. Brouwer says. He found nothing specific to quarrel with in the Rev. Dr. Graham's words or actions. In regard to Dr. Graham's statement that he found more religious freedom than he expected, Mr. Brouwer observes, ''Sure, if you come out of a propagandist background that teaches there is no true church in the Soviet Union, certainly one would be surprised.
''I wouldn't call the situation there religious freedom; certainly it is not at all to be compared with this country,'' he says. ''But the church does exist -- by the strength of its own convictions.''
Dr. Graham's speech at the conference was a good one, Mr. Brouwer says. But he says reporters gave a distorted impression of the conference, overemphasizing and misinterpreting Dr. Graham's role.
Some journalistic accounts presented the total process as a battle between the US delegates and the USSR, and concluded the Americans won. ''That wasn't true,'' Mr. Brouwer says. ''We all won.''