The moralizing of a vocal Protestant head of state was difficult in a Catholic country

As suddenly and almost as unexpectedly as he came to power 17 months ago, General Efraín Ríos Montt was “relieved of his responsibility” as president of Guatemala by the military high command on August 8. He was succeeded by General Oscar Humberto Mejía Victores, his defense minister.

The new head of state pledged to continue the basic reforms instituted by Ríos Montt, including cracking down on administrative corruption, respect for human rights, and a return to democracy. He said the process leading to elections, which already was in progress, would be continued. The official communique issued at the time of the coup gave two main reasons for the action: the personal ambition of a small group to “perpetuate itself indefinitely in power” and the “abuse” of a “fanatical and aggressive religious group” that “used the position of power of its highest members for its own benefit.”

Some observers saw the real reason as an attempt by senior military officers to regain the control lost when junior officers engineered the March 23, 1982, coup that deposed President Romeo Lucas García. There had also been increasingly shrill criticism of Ríos Montt in recent weeks from politicians and Catholic church spokesmen. A controversial new 10 percent value-added tax—essentially a sales tax—which began August 1 as part of a fiscal reform package, had also caused unhappiness, as had rumors that the government was planning to institute an agrarian reform program.

Behind the rhetoric of “sectarian fanaticism” it seems there was a religious element in the removal from office of Guatemala’s first evangelical president. A spokesman for the Committee for a Catholic Party (a political party) called for public jubilation at the news. Monsignor Ramiro Pellecer, acting archbishop of Guatemala City, told newsmen he welcomed the change for political and also religious reasons.

It is no secret that the Catholic hierarchy, which traditionally has enjoyed a cozy relationship with the government, felt itself out in the cold under Ríos Montt. And though Ríos Montt personally was not a major factor in the amazing growth of evangelical churches—approaching 25 percent of the population and destined to hit 50 percent by 1990 if the current rate of growth continues—he was a visible symbol of a highly threatening trend. (U.S. newspapers put the Catholic population at 90 percent or more, but it actually is much less.)

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Criticism centered on foreign “sects” said to be operating with vast sums of money from North America and on Rios Montt’s Sunday evening broadcasts to the nation in which he preached morality and personal responsibility. An obvious target was the Verbo Church (Church of the Word) founded by Gospel Outreach of Eureka, California, of which Ríos Montt is a member.

Although he installed two of its elders, Francisco Bianchi and Alvaro Contreras, as presidential advisers, and put several church members in government posts, Verbo’s influence on the administration was overrated by its critics. There had been strong pressure to remove Bianchi and Contreras, which Ríos Montt resisted.

Despite accusations that he used his Sunday broadcasts to preach his “sectarian beliefs,” Ríos Montt actually stayed within the broad bounds of a JudeoChristian message. He did refer frequently to his personal faith in God and, on Easter Sunday, to the resurrection of Christ, but these should not have offended anyone from any branch of Christianity. As dust from the coup settled, Rios Montt was at home quietly receiving friends and sympathizers, still an army general in a state of “availability.”

Verbo church officials were going about the usual business of caring for their flock while trying to explain to reporters that no, they really never did run the country. Evangelicals in general were reminding themselves that God is sovereign, while they braced for possible difficulties ahead.

STEPHEN SYWULKA in Guatemala City

X-Rated Films Are Banned From Cincinnati Cable Tv

Ten years ago the U.S. Supreme Court gave localities the power to judge obscenity cases according to contemporary community standards. In Cincinnati, a police officer, a county prosecutor, and a grand jury took advantage of that authority and won.

Last May, Warner Amex Cable Communications of Cincinnati, Incorporated, began broadcasting the Playboy Channel into the homes of subscribers who paid up to $15.95 a month to receive it. Lt. Harold Mills, commander of the Cincinnati Police Department’s vice squad, obtained video tapes of two films shown on the channel. Thinking the films might violate Ohio’s obscenity law, Mills gave the tapes to Hamilton County Prosecutor Arthur M. Ney, Jr. A grand jury reviewed the tapes and returned a four-count criminal indictment against Warner Amex. The cable company was charged with two counts of possessing obscenity and two counts of pandering obscenity.

Rather than have the case tried in Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas, Warner Amex signed an agreement that prohibits it from broadcasting “adult oriented sexually explicit movies, programs or otherwise, which are unrated and if rated would receive an X-rating.…” The agreement also prohibits movies that are rated “X” by the Classification and Rating Administration of the Motion Picture Association of America.

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Warner Amex officials maintain that the agreement merely reiterates a company policy already in force. Officials at Playboy Enterprises edit films offered on the Playboy Channel to conform to standards for R-rated movies, said Jessica Baron, Warner Amex communications manager.

However, that company policy cannot protect Warner Amex from the threat of obscenity charges for two reasons. First, the Classification and Rating Administration does not provide clear written guidelines that define what constitutes an “R” movie. No one can be sure the edited Playboy Channel films would receive “R” ratings if they were reviewed by the Classification and Rating Administration, said Richard Heffner, the administration’s chairman.

Second, even if the film carried an official “R” rating, it still might be considered obscene when measured against local community standards, said prosecutor Ney.

The agreement that bans X-rated cable movies was seen as a victory by opponents of pornography. But the out-of-court settlement is being challenged in U.S. District Court by Willard Gates, a Cincinnati subscriber to the Playboy Channel.

Gates’s suit charges that the agreement violates his First Amendment rights. “The government cannot cut off your access to constitutionally protected speech,” said Marc Mezibov, Gates’s attorney. The Cincinnati chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) supports Gates’s action.

The Rev. Jerry Kirk, steering committee chairman of Citizens Concerned for Community Values, disagrees with Mezibov’s assertion that the Constitution protects X-rated movies. “The Supreme Court has clearly stated … through the years that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment,” he said. “We believe X-rated movies would be proven to be obscene according to our community standards. And we’d love to have them test it [in court].” In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. California that “contemporary community standards” determine if a particular work violates a three-pronged test of obscenity. The test includes whether a work appeals to prurient interest, portrays sex in a patently offensive way, and lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

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The Playboy Channel was opposed by a cross section of Cincinnati citizens. Ney said he has “a whole file” of complaints from local residents. In addition, some 400 members of Citizens Concerned for Community Values showed up at a Cincinnati City Council meeting to voice opposition to the programming. The Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati and Xavier University protested.

Warner Amex’s Baron said the Playboy Channel was disconnected in Cincinnati to allow the cable operator to correct a technical malfunction that enabled unauthorized persons to receive the channel. She said Warner Amex had gone to great lengths to assure that adult subscribers could control the viewing of the channel in their own homes.

World Scene

Some 300 were killed and 80,000 rendered homeless in three days of fierce rioting between Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. A separatist Tamil group sparked the violence on July 23 by killing 13 Sinhalese soldiers in an attempt to set up a separate Tamil nation. Sinhalese mobs retaliated by methodically burning Tamil homes. The violence scattered members of one of the few Christian churches in Sri Lanka. Pastor Cecil Siriwardene of the Grace Bible Church said he doubts that the members of his church, most of whom are Tamils, will ever worship together again.

Citizen-lobbying efforts are beginning to help alleviate famine in Ethiopia. Bread for the World, among others, persuaded the U.S. State Department to provide trucks needed to move food supplies from Ethiopia’s port cities to starving residents of the country’s interior. BFW spokesperson Susan Lyke said 50,000 tons of grain, plus seeds for new crops, await shipment. Without government-issue vehicles, just one-tenth of the grain could be moved. BFW also successfully urged the government to reinstate its $3 million Food for Peace program in Ethiopia. The funding originally had been cut from the fiscal 1984 budget.

Christian groups in the West African nation of Ghana are applying pressure on Ghana’s military rulers. The Christian Council of Ghana and the National Union of Ghana Catholic Diocesan Priests’ Associations have urged military rulers to turn their power over to a civilian government. They have blamed the current government for Ghana’s widespread hunger and violence. The government has criticized religious leaders for not suggesting how the government could find ways “to achieve the set desirable aims of the revolution.”

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Archaeologists have announced they believe they have discovered the remains ofan ancient synagogue where Jesus taught. Archaeologist Virgilio Corbo is reasonably certain the discovery in Capernaum, Israel, is the ruin of the synagogue that is mentioned in Mark 1:21–25.

Bibles are no longer on Uganda’s “Magendo” list (black market), according to Benezeri Kisembo, general secretary of the Bible Society in Uganda. Just a year ago. Bibles were in short supply in Uganda, and the demand was so high that black market Bibles could be sold for high prices. But with more regular shipments of the Scriptures to Uganda, customers can buy a Bible at its official price from the Bible Society.

Some 3,500 people in Zimbabwe’s bush country have made professions of faith in Christ. Baptist Press reports the vehicle for the conversions was the Life Ministries film Jesus, which was shown repeatedly in 24 areas. According to church developer Bob Parker, a Southern Baptist missionary, churches might begin in 11 of those areas. In the U.S., Life Ministries is known as Campus Crusade for Christ.

The growing strength of Islam in Nigeria has led to the increased persecution of the church in that country. In the past year, at least eight churches have been burned or vandalized by Muslim fanatics.

India’s prime minister and China’s family-planning minister have received a population awareness award given by the United Nations. But Theodore Schultz, a 1979 recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics and a professor at the University of Chicago, is infuriated that the award has gone to the leader of a regime that forces males to be sterilized (Prime Minister Indira Gandhi) and the head of a program that has encouraged female infanticide (China’s Xian Xinshong). Schultz was an adviser to the awards committee, but found none of the nominees acceptable.

South African churches have begun a nationwide monitoring of businesses practicing apartheid and upholding racial division. The monitoring is attributable to resolutions adopted by a recent conference of the South African Council of Churches. Churches are urged by the resolutions not to lend church property or other support to organizations that endorse the present apartheid system.

North American Scene

The Zondervan Corporation, Grand Rapids Michigan, has agreed in principle to acquire the Fleming H. Revell Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of SFN Companies, Incorporated. The cost of the purchase is $10 million. Zondervan is a Christian communications company that publishes, distributes, and retails evangelical Christian materials. Revell, based in Old Tappan, New Jersey, publishes evangelical and motivational trade books, and Today’s Christian Woman magazine.

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A Tibetan Buddhist group has nearly completed what will be the first Tibetan temple complex in the United States, near Berkeley, California. The center is called Odiyan, and is designed in the style of a traditional Tibetan monastery. It is being built on a 900-acre tract. The center will preserve and transmit the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Since the Communist takeover of Tibet in 1959, all four of the Tibetan Buddhist orders have established themselves in the United States.

A physician in a leading pediatrics magazine has attacked “religious mumbo-jumbo” about the “sanctity of human life.” The article, authored by Peter Singer of the Center for Bioethics in Australia, appeared in a recent issue of Pediatrics, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The academy is the principal group opposing the Reagan administration’s new rule demanding treatment of handicapped newborns. Singer argues that a “nonhuman animal” often has “superior capacities” over a “severely defective human infant,” that “species membership” is not “morally relevant.” and that life should be measured in terms of its quality. The academy is the largest professional organization for pediatricians.

All but 15 of the 100 companies operating in South Africa in which the United Methodist board of pensions owns stock have voted to adhere to the Sullivan Principles, a minimum code of corporate ethics. At its recent midyear meeting, the pension board voted to continue “vigorous efforts” to encourage the remaining companies to sign. The principles, which include equal pay for equal work and mandatory nonsegregated facilities, are viewed by some as a better strategy than disinvestment to combat the government’s policy of apartheid.

The homosexuality of a candidate should not be ground for refusing ordination, according to a report accepted overwhelmingly at the United Church of Christ’s biennial general synod. The report states that “sexual orientation is not a moral issue.” United Methodists, however, strongly disagree. Ordination of avowed homosexuals has been the hottest issue at this year’s U.M. regional conferences. The overwhelming majority of the conferences says that homosexuals should not be ordained.

Delegates to a convention of the 2.7-million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod passed a resolution condemning “intemperate” remarks made by Martin Luther about Jews. The delegates also reaffirmed the denomination’s opposition to abortion and called for a study of nuclear arms, but discouraged the synod from taking a “conscience-binding” stand on the issue.

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