Of all the KGB's secret agents, perhaps the most cynical are those who pretended to be simple clergymen. On their ecumenical trips from Moscow to New York to Geneva, they used the authority of two millennia of Christian witness to support an atheist tyranny. Groups like the World Council of Churches believed them; Russian peasants knew better.
Moscow's top authority on these agents in cassocks, a human-rights activist since 1965, just spent a week in Washington. Father Gleb Yakunin did not tell all, but enough to make a damning case against the top echelon of the Russian Orthodox Church.
An elected member of the Russian Parliament, Father Yakunin, a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church, was appointed last September to a special parliamentary commission investigating the August coup attempt. He gained unprecedented access to the KGB's files. What he found, he told me, was worse than his worst suspicions.
The parliamentary investigators worked from a special room in Moscow's Lubyanka building -- the KGB headquarters used to direct arrests of millions of Russians, including Father Yakunin in 1979.
He found proof of extensive KGB penetration not just of the Russian Orthodox Church but of every major faith in the former Soviet Union: Baptists and other Protestants, Roman Catholics in Ukraine and the Baltic republics, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims.
The investigators unearthed documents whose authors presumed no one but Communist Party loyalists would ever read them. They studied reports from the agency that specialized in manipulating religious groups, the Fourth Department of the KGB's Directorate Z. They read the code names of 30 of the KGB's top collaborators among the Russian Orthodox Church's bishops -- including nearly every member of the church's ruling Patriarchal Synod.
How did such agents serve their KGB handlers? Secret reports on the Russian church's participation in the 1983 assembly of the World Council of Churches in Canada reveal 47 of the Russian delegates to be KGB agents who blocked resolutions on Soviet religious persecution and on the invasion of Afghanistan.
A 1988 report tells how ''our agents were active at a church conference in Moscow in which 72 church leaders took part, of whom four were foreigners. . . . Our 10 agents were able to control the situation in the conference; a positive press release was adopted giving the principled evaluation by the Russian Orthodox Church of the activity of religious extremists in our country.''
The agents in cassocks collaborated with the foreign and domestic policies of a regime set on destroying religion as a social force. They demoted clergy who preached on unwelcome topics, suppressed institutions such as Sunday schools, censored honest religious writers such as Deacon Vladimir Rusak. As one dissident observed, they chose ''voluntary internal enslavement.''
Just who are these agents? By comparing the KGB reports with old press bulletins of the Orthodox Church, one can often deduce which code name belongs to which bishop.
Only one bishop took part in all meetings with foreigners and other activities specifically ascribed to KGB agent ''Abbat;'' that bishop is Pitirim of Volokolamsk, head of the church's Publications Department. Agent ''Adamant'' must be Yuvenaly of Krutitsy, the Russian church's second-highest leader and long-time oppressor of dissident clergy in the Moscow area. Agent ''Antonov'' is Filaret of Kiev, head of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.
Father Yakunin and his colleagues know the identities of dozens of other such agents but are reluctant to reveal that information unilaterally.
They would prefer to see the church leadership cleanse itself through public confession, repentance and replacement of the most notorious collaborators. Instead, the head of the church, Patriarch Alexei of Moscow, and most of his fellow bishops have been stonewalling.
Only Archbishop Khrisostom of Vilnius has publicly said he once served the KGB. He stopped doing so two years ago and boldly condemned last year's KGB crackdown against Lithuania. A recent church council in Moscow produced only one ambiguous concession: Agent ''Antonov'' of Kiev ostensibly offered to resign. But his resignation may be rejected.
The continued dominance of the church hierarchy by veteran KGB agents is a direct threat to Russia's fragile democracy. The coming hard-line reaction will probably invoke not communism but the symbols of Russia's national culture, including Orthodoxy. Bishops such as agent ''Abbat,'' who openly endorsed last August's coup, may hold the balance of power.
But Patriarch Alexei has actively tried to cover up the evidence against ''Abbat,'' ''Drozdov,'' and other KGB agents in senior church positions. Until recently he denied that any bishops had ever served the KGB. He has opposed Father Yakunin's probe, encouraging the anti-reformist parliamentary leader Ruslan Khasbulatov to suspend the work of the special investigative commission.
Last fall, dissident priest Georgi Edelshtein told me he considers the Patriarchate of Moscow to be Russia's last surviving Soviet institution. I see why.
Lawrence A. Uzzell is vice president of the Jamestown Foundation. He wrote this commentary for the Christian Science Monitor.