By Tom Carter. The Washington Times, January 24, 2000
The custody battle over Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban child rescued from the Straits of Florida, has thrown a spotlight on the National Council of Churches, an ecumenical religious organization that claims to represent more than 50 million churchgoers.
The NCC has jumped squarely into the middle of the saga. Elian's two grandmothers who flew from Havana to New York Friday, where they told a throng of reporters that they wanted to "finish this tragedy" used an NCC-chartered jet for their trip.
Even before its entrance into the case of the Cuban boy, the Council has attracted its share of critics, who accuse the organization of being an apologist for Cuba and Marxist dictatorships for more than 30 years.
Though the NCC attempts to portray itself as an honest broker in an international custody dispute over the 6-year-old boy, who is staying with relatives in Miami, critics say the organization's history makes it an ill-suited participant in any discussion of the boy's future.
"We do not think the NCC is impartial. They have been openly sympathetic to the Cuban government for many years," said Mark Tooley, a director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative group founded out of dissatisfaction with NCC foreign policy.
Mr. Tooley said that the NCC, and its current director, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, fawn over Cuba's health care and education system but never mention's Cuba's persecution of evangelicals, Jehovah's Witnesses and Catholic activists.
"I cannot think of a single time in 25 years when it has criticized Cuba's human rights record," he said.
He said the NCC's claims of membership are inflated, and that polls indicate that fewer than one-third of the members of its affiliated denominations know what the NCC is doing or agree with its political stands.
The NCC declined to comment for this article.
Its detractors say the organization radicalized in the late 1960s and embraced the Marxist-influenced liberation theology of Latin America in the 1970s.
Today it represents 34 denominations that include 52 million members.
The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches describes it as the "pre-eminent expression in the United States of the movement toward Christian unity."
In 1983, CBS' "60 Minutes" did a story entitled "The Gospel According to Whom?" suggesting that the NCC was using its members' pulpits to preach the Gospel according to Karl Marx.
In the years that followed, Mr. Tooley said, the NCC's left-wing politics have left its membership alienated, leading to a "financial crisis" amounting to a $4 million deficit for the organization, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in November.
"Even their liberal membership sees them as irrelevant and out of touch," said Mr. Tooley.
The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, a conservative Catholic journal, agreed:
"The NCC is a shadow of what it once was. It has been sidelined. It's 50th anniversary was more of a requiem than a celebration. It has lost the confidence of its membership."
"Throughout the Cold War the great divide was between anti-Communists and anti anti-Communists. With depressing consistency, the NCC was in the second camp. Its historical record is dramatically clear."
Mr. Tooley said that even with the fall of the Soviet Union, the NCC failed to reappraise its positions.
"They are still defending North Korea, China, Cuba. You can't find them anywhere criticizing human rights abuses in those places,' he said.
According to Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley, author of a history of the NCC titled, "From Mainline to Sideline: The Social Witness of the National Council of Churches," the NCC was silent on Cuba until 1968, when it demanded that the United States recognize Cuba's communist
"The National Council of Churches should drop its religious affiliation and register as an agent of the Cuban government," he wrote in a commentary that appeared in The Washington Times Jan. 10.
Mr. Billingsley said Church World Service, the NCC's relief arm, set up the Cuban Refugee Emergency Center in Miami but when exiles began speaking out on Cuban human rights, NCC officials fired the center's director.
It then filled the position with the Rev. Paul McCleary, who helped set up an "advocacy" office for Cuban affairs in Washington.
In 1977, upon its return from Cuba, an NCC delegation refused to acknowledge that the Cuban government persecuted Christians, committed human rights violations, or abused its prisoners.
At the time Amnesty International was lobbying for release of Cuban prisoners who were distinguished by being held for as long as 20 years.
One, Armando Valladares, a poet who was imprisoned for 22 years, recalled in his memoir "Against All Hope" that Cuban jailers tortured the prisoners with the words of NCC apologists.
"That was worse for the Christian political prisoners than the beatings or the hunger," Mr. Valladares wrote. "Incomprehensibly to us, while we waited for the embrace of solidarity from our brothers in Christ, those who were embraced were our tormentors."