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Obituary: Alexander Haraszti

Sandor Ritter (Alexander Haraszti), pastor and physician: born Soltvadkert, Hungary 2 March 1920; married 1943 Rosalie Ban (two sons, three daughters, and one son deceased); died Atlanta, Georgia 16 January 1998.

Alexander Haraszti was the architect of Billy Graham's Eastern European visits in the 1970s and 1980s. Without his formidable powers of persuasion, charm, persistence, guile and chutzpah it is doubtful whether the American evangelist could have added the Communist world to his numerous other preaching destinations.

Multilingual, a pastor and doctor as well as a negotiator, Haraszti had the vision of creating out of Graham an evangelist to the world. To achieve this goal, he persuaded Graham to soft-pedal his anti-Communism and agree not to speak out about persecution of Christians in the Communist world.

Haraszti gained a doctorate in linguistics and was ordained a Baptist minister in Budapest in 1944. He then worked as a pastor to support himself while he and his wife completed medical studies at Semmelweis University in Budapest, where he practised medicine as well as teaching at the Baptist seminary.

During the Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination in 1956, Haraszti fled to Vienna with his family, and then to the United States. He later claimed he had left Hungary not for political motives but to be able to work in Africa as a medical missionary. He trained with the Southern Baptists, but by the time he and his wife completed the training they were deemed too old and a subsequent invitation to join Albert Schweitzer came to nothing, although he did briefly work in Ghana, Tanzania and the Gaza Strip. By now Haraszti had American citizenship. He and his wife opened a medical practice in Atlanta and he became a surgical resident at three Atlanta hospitals.

As a pastor in the early 1950s in Budapest, Haraszti had translated Billy Graham's book Peace With God (1953), without ever guessing he might one day be working closely with the evangelist. Their first encounter took place in 1972, when Haraszti and two Hungarian pastors were invited to meet Graham during a crusade in Cleveland.

All were keen on a crusade in Hungary, despite the obvious difficulties. Haraszti was despatched to Budapest to tackle the Communist authorities. The head of the State Office for Religious Affairs, Imre Miklos, needed some persuading, identifying Graham as a "burning anti-Communist". Haraszti was well versed in negotiating with Communist officials from his earlier days in Hungary, although this time it took five years to achieve his goal.

The limited success of Billy Graham's 1977 Hungarian crusade - during which Haraszti also served as his translator - fired Haraszti's ambition to turn Graham into the evangelist of Eastern Europe. Thanks to Haraszti's efforts, crusades to Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union eventually took place. Most were controversial.

Graham was widely quoted as denying religious persec-ution in the countries he visited, the price he was prepared to pay for the visits to go ahead. On his first visit to Hungary, Graham ignored the bulldozing of a Methodist church in Budapest. Graham's 1985 visit to Ceausescu's Romania, for which Haraszti had worked since 1978, was perhaps the most controversial, despite the large numbers of people who came to hear the evangelist. Graham remained silent on political and religious persecution there.

Haraszti was a master of backroom negotiation. Energetic and self-confident, he had no trouble switching from doctor to pastor to political troubleshooter. When Graham succeeded in gaining a meeting at short notice with the Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobry-nin, Haraszti would not have dreamt of missing out. He began a scheduled hyster- ectomy a few minutes early then, leaving his juniors to finish the job, dashed to the airport to catch a flight to Washington.

In the car to the embassy, Graham told the Pepsi chief executive Don Kendall that Haraszti knew more about Eastern Europe than Henry Kissinger. For Alexander Haraszti, it was a day to savour.

- Felix Corley