Campolo says U.S. missionaries too close to CIA, later ‘regrets’ comment

Mission organizations have long opposed CIA requests for missionaries to assist the spy agency, and one current mission leader says he isn’t aware of field personnel being asked for information by U.S. security agencies.

Editor's note: This article was modified March 19 to include additional information following the third paragraph and the final paragraph.

By Bob Allen

A progressive evangelical leader who counseled President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal says it isn’t surprising that North Korea would release an Australian accused of illegal missionary activity while sentencing an American caught doing the same thing to 15 years of hard labor, because in parts of the world U.S. missionaries are perceived as too cozy with the CIA.

“Missionaries here in the United States have been too close to the CIA,” Tony Campolo, professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University and founder and president of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, said in a recent podcast.

tony campolo“For instance, very often when missionaries come home from the field, if they’ve been serving in places like Pakistan or Afghanistan, the CIA calls them to Washington,” Campolo said in audio posted at “And too often the missionaries go to Washington and are debriefed: Who are the leaders in the villages where you were working? What was the attitude of people in the churches toward the United States?”

Campolo issued a statement March 19 saying he regretted making those remarks, adding “any symbolism of the practice has long since been discontinued.” His full statement is below. Links to the podcast have been removed.

Earlier this month North Korea freed John Short, a 75-year-old Australian detained allegedly for illegally distributing Bible tracts around a Buddhist temple after entering the country as a tourist.

Meanwhile another missionary, Korean-American Kenneth Bae, remains in prison since his arrest on Nov. 12, 2012, for planning a missionary project called “Operation Jericho,” which North Korea called a religious plot to depose leader Kim Jong-Un.

Campolo, whose ministry sponsors Christian service programs in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in various African countries and across Canada and the United States, said he is surprised that it took the United Nations so long to recognize atrocities in North Korea detailed in a scathing report released in February, but not surprised by the apparent double standard.

“These kinds of cooperative relationships the missionaries from the United States have had with the CIA have made missionaries very suspect in these countries such as North Korea,” Campolo said. “So I understand fully why the Australian was let go and the American missionary was held behind.”

Suspicion about CIA involvement with U.S. foreign missionaries has a long history. Fausto Vasconcelos, evangelism director for the Baptist World Alliance and a former pastor in Brazil, said in an interview last December that he remembers hearing speculation about whether a particular Southern Baptist missionary worked for the CIA in the 1960s.

In 1975, President Gerald Ford admitted that the CIA had used missionaries as agents in the past and might do so again.

“In many countries of the world representatives of the clergy, foreign and local, play a significant role and can be of assistance to the U.S. through the CIA with no reflection upon the integrity of their mission,” CIA Director William Colby said in a letter to Sen. Mark Hatfield.

The Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board responded with a letter in February 1976 asking President Ford “to take whatever steps are necessary, as soon as possible, to make clear, in our country and abroad, that missionaries and clergy throughout the world are not to be used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or any other intelligence agency of our government.”

The FMB, today known as the International Mission Board, made a similar request to President Jimmy Carter, after members of his administration indicated they were not opposed to the use of religious workers as intelligence agents.

CIA Director Stansfield Turner told a House panel in March 1980 that a prohibition against intelligence relationships with members of religious, media or academic organizations would be an “unwarranted limitation of flexibility.” Another White House official supported regulation of relationships between the intelligence community and clergy but said an outright ban on using religious organizations would be “unwise.”

The issue arose again in 1982, when FMB President Keith Parks and Executive Vice President William O’Brien met with CIA director William Casey about the board’s position that involving missionaries in espionage violates the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state. Parks told Casey that any CIA use of missionaries “jeopardizes not only the work of missionaries but has the potential of putting them in a dangerous situation and even jeopardizes their lives as well as our being able to stay and work in various countries.”

In 2005, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez kicked New Tribes Mission, a church-planting and Bible-translating mission agency, out of the country alleging the group had ties to the CIA. That came on the heels of controversy after religious broadcaster Pat Robertson said on television that the U.S. government should assassinate Chavez to protect American oil interests.

The United States isn’t always the target of suspicion. In 1976 the U.S. government investigated possible links between the Korean Central Intelligence Agency and Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.

jim smith cbfJim Smith, interim global missions coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said he has not heard any CBF field personnel refer to anyone from the government probing them for information pertinent to their country or service location.

“I’ve found that our field personnel are not attracting interest by the CIA or other government agencies for their work around the world,” Smith said. “They work in a low-key fashion attempting to identify local assets and talents to help communities become transformed into a healthier entity. This approach tends to introduce less outside assets into a situation and therefore causes less wake to be formed.”

“Our people tend to stick close to the poor and marginalized,” Smith said. “We do encourage everyone to be advocates for justice and freedom. Usually that comes from a position of weakness, especially overseas, but it’s the stance we encourage.”

Campolo’s full “statement of regret” follows:

“In a conversation conducted on a radio show, an off the cuff statement was made that I regret because it can cause problems. In the conversation I was referencing Sen. Mark Hatfield, then on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, took action to call into question whereby in certain cases missionaries were being debriefed upon return from the mission field by U.S. government officials. Any symbolism of the practice has long since been discontinued.

“It was wrong of me to even bring up that this ever existed. This does not contribute to the building up of the Kingdom and I regret making these remarks.”