November 12 (ENI)—Hard on the heels of its worst ever financial crisis, the US National Council of Churches (NCC) has been meeting here from 9 to 12 November to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

A sign perhaps of the ebbing appeal of the venerable organization - still the biggest ecumenical body in the US, with 35 member churches representing 52 million Christians - was the fact that less than half the anticipated crowd of 2000 showed up for the celebration.

The lower than expected turnout has exacerbated the NCC's financial difficulties, adding several tens of thousands of dollars to a 1999 budget shortfall that now totals nearly US$4 million and has angered elected delegates who had been assured by NCC officials as recently as late October that the celebration would break even financially.

"I'm not surprised, but I'm profoundly disappointed and angry," said John Thomas, a member of the NCC Executive Board, who had insisted earlier that the costs of the celebration not add to the shortfall. NCC treasurer Margaret Thomas quietly replied: "Your feelings are widely shared."

But the celebration itself had positive moments. In a dramatic service on 10 November in Cleveland's Old Stone Church, five survivors of a reported massacre of 400 civilians by the US Army during the early days of the Korean War met three US Army ex-servicemen who have said that they participated in the alleged slaughter.

Hundreds attended the Service of Reconciliation that preceded a private meeting between the survivors and the US veterans from the massacre, which took place in Korea close to the time the NCC was founded in this city.

"This meeting [between the Koreans the US veterans], the first step in a process of remembrance and healing, is exactly the kind of 'truth and reconciliation' work the church should be and is doing all over the world," said Joan Brown Campbell, who will retire as NCC general secretary at the end of this year. She praised the survivors for their persistence in pursuing justice and the former soldiers for their courage in coming forward.

"Going public with such admissions carries a heavy price for themselves and for their families," she said.

The NCC was instrumental in uncovering the No Gun Ri tragedy. Last December, at the request of its South Korean counterpart, the National Council of Churches in Korea, the NCC asked the US Defense Department for its response to detailed testimony from Korean survivors and eyewitnesses to the massacre.

In March, the US Army replied that it had "found no information to substantiate the claim that US Army soldiers had perpetrated a massacre of South Korean civilians at No Gun Ri".

However, new documentation and evidence gathered by the Associated Press from survivors, eyewitnesses and the former US soldiers have apparently persuaded the Department of Defense to reopen its investigation.

A group of conservative leaders from several NCC member churches have called for "a funeral, not a celebration" in Cleveland, arguing that the NCC has outlived its usefulness and is a hindrance to broader ecumenical cooperation in the US.

Related Elsewhere

The National Council of Churches Web site has a large section on its fiftieth anniversary.

More news on the ecumenical movement, especially NCC news, is available through Worldwide Faith News's site.

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