Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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World Council of Churches

Ecumenical, religious organization dedicated to world peace and the preservation of human rights. As early as 1937, religious leaders had agreed to establish a World Council of Churches (WCC), but World War II delayed the founding of the organization until August 1948, when representatives of 147 churches assembled in Amsterdam to create the WCC. Today, the WCC consists of 342 member churches in 120 countries. The WCC is the institutional expression of the modern ecumenical movement, the goal of which is to achieve Christian unity. WCC-affiliated churches are mainly Protestant (Lutheran, Reformed, Methodist, Baptist), Anglican, and Orthodox churches. The Roman Catholic Church is the only major Christian church that does not belong to the WCC.

The Cold War decided the political framework of the WCC from its start in 1948, when U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Czechoslovak theologian Josef Hromádka argued about whether the churches should combat communism or champion such socialist ideals as class justice and equality. The WCC's first secretary-general, Willem Visser 't Hooft, partly settled the issue by advocating that the churches promote reconciliation rather than competition between East and West.

This stance changed, however, after the Third Assembly in New Delhi in 1961, when churches from former colonies in Africa and Asia and Orthodox churches from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe entered the WCC. These overwhelmed the older member churches and influenced WCC policy in a more anti-West direction. Philip Potter from Dominica, as secretary-general after 1964, was a voice of the former colonies. Western churches now saw themselves confronted with the indignation of developing-world and Eastern churches. Consequently, the WCC adopted the Program to Combat Racism, which proved a valuable contribution to the struggle against South Africa's apartheid government. The WCC also came to the defense of human rights in Latin America during the 1960s–1980s.

In 1975 the WCC Assembly faced a short period of Western criticism over human rights violations in Eastern Europe. However, Orthodox church officials—some of them Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti (KGB) or Stasi informers—progressive Western officials, and church deputies from Africa and Asia soon stanched this criticism and concentrated on anticolonialist, antiracist, and peace programs. In Boston in 1979 the WCC announced a program to combat militarism that inspired many peace organizations throughout the world, such as Aktion Sühnezeichen in Germany and Pax Christi International.

In 1983 in Vancouver, the WCC sought to combine peace, social justice, and environmentalism into one large conciliar process. This policy bore fruit, particularly in North America, the Netherlands, and the two Germanies. In the West, it tied many loose church groups together. In East Germany it went further, stimulating protest against the regime from within the churches. The conclusion of the conciliar process took place in Seoul in 1990.

By that time, the world had changed significantly. The Cold War had all but ended, and politically driven WCC discussions had receded in importance. The WCC then had to cope with the accusations of East European dissidents and oppressed churches who believed that the WCC had not adequately defended them. Council officials were also confronted with revelations about their spying activities on behalf of communist regimes. Because of these scandals and the WCC's alleged pro-Soviet inclination, the organization lost a great deal of credibility. At the same time, Orthodox churches criticized the WCC because of its progressive positions concerning the ordination of women or the acceptance of homosexuality.

Beatrice de Graaf

Further Reading
Besier, G., A. Boyens, and G. Lindemann. Nationaler Protestantismus und Ökumenische Bewegung: Kirchliches Handeln im Kalten Krieg (1945–1990) [National Protestantism and the Ecumenical Movement: Church Activism during the Cold War]. Berlin: Duncker and Humblot, 1999.

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