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Former Soviet Dissident Scores Graham for His Views on the USSR

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A former Jewish dissident who emigrated from the Soviet Union five years ago has criticized the Rev. Billy Graham for his conduct during and following a controversial trip to the USSR last week.

The former dissident, Mark Azbel, confronted Graham during a panel discussion last Sunday on ABC-TV’s “This Week with David Brinkley,” following an interview with the minister that was televised by satellite from London. Azbel’s appearance was broadcast from ABC-TV’s studio in Washington, D.C.

Graham, whose trip to the Soviet Union has been denounced by critics as a propaganda triumph for the Soviet government, had been invited there to attend a Soviet-sponsored world gathering of religious leaders opposed to nuclear war.

The minister was feted by Soviet officials and at Christian churches, where he preached the Gospel of Jesus. Traditionally an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union, Graham suggested to the press in Moscow that some religious freedoms are enjoyed in the USSR, pointing to what he said were the large numbers of people who attend church services there.

A BITTER EXCHANGE

In a bitter interchange with Graham, the former Soviet dissident challenged the minister’s authority “to tell what goes on with freedom of religion in Russia…”

Repeatedly interrupting attempts by Graham to respond, Azbel attacked the minister’s suggestion that his meetings with “the Jewish leadership” in Moscow and with the city’s chief rabbi was anything more than a sham. “The Jewish leadership does not want to talk about–has nothing to do with Jews in Moscow or anywhere,” he told Graham. “The chief rabbi in Russia is not even qualified to be a rabbi. You don’t know that.”

Azbel, whose emigration from the Soviet Union was permitted only after a five-year battle with the authorities, was a founding member of the Moscow Sunday Seminar, established for scientists whose positions had been revoked by the government upon their application for emigration visas, as a way of updating one another on developments in their fields.

ASKS GRAHAM TO PUT ‘IT STRAIGHT’

Azbel pressed Graham to acknowledge that his trip to the USSR did not provide him with authoritative information on the state of religion and religious practices in the Soviet Union. In a lengthy emotional statement, Azbel said:

“Would you mind putting it straight? You met leaders. You bring the message from leaders who are opposed to the people, and this is the only thing you know of. You do not know the opinion of the people in Russia. Have you met 10 common Jews who pray, 10 common persons who pray? Have you met people who are in prison? Do you have any knowledge but the knowledge of the official who approached you? And if not, can you speak in the name of the people who are desperate in Russia without you undermining their plight?”

The minister, interrupted at every pause, insisted that “there are millions of people in the Soviet Union that go to church on Sunday.” But he conceded that “restrictions” on religious practices have been in existence since the revolution. Referring to Soviet worshippers affected by those restrictions, Graham added, “… sometimes they become stronger; sometimes they become less.”

Currently on sabbatical leave from Tel Aviv University, Azbel is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Physics. He appeared on Sunday’s television panel together with Methodist minister Edmund Robb, chairman of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. Although Robb’s comments were less emotive than Azbel’s sharp tongue-lashing, he was no less critical of Graham’s visit to the Soviet Union.

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