Oregon Catholics awoke Easter morning, opened the Oregonian newspaper, and found a full-page advertisement arguing that their church is the anti-Christ.

The ad, which cost $15,000 to run in the newspaper and reached an estimated one million readers, originated with a Tennessee congregation splintered from the Seventh-day Adventists.

Among other things, the 5,600-word ad calls the Roman Catholic Church 'murderous and persecuting.' It describes the papacy as an institution bent on controlling the world and altering God-given law.

'There is something particularly perverse about attacking Christianity on our most solemn feast,' says Mary Jo Tully, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Portland.

The ad, like pamphlets passed out in Oregon during the 1990s, applies biblical prophesies to Catholic Church history and concludes that the papacy is the embodiment of the Antichrist. The Antichrist, described as a beast in the books of Daniel and Revelation, is thought to be a power that will have a go at conquering the world just before the apocalyptic battle.

The ad also appeared in recent weeks in smaller newspapers in Coos Bay, Vancouver, Wash., and Longview, Wash.

Carl Person, 36-year-old pastor of Sweetwater Seventh-day Adventist Church in Athens, Tenn., has for the past year sent the ad copy all over the world.

A version even appeared last month in an Israeli daily newspaper during Pope John Paul's Holy Land visit.

Local sympathizers, mostly renegade Adventists, pay for publicizing the massive block of exegesis in their area. About a dozen people, two representing congregations, paid for the Oregonian full-page ad, Person reports.

'One thing that ad definitely does not do is accuse any Catholic individual of anything,' says Person, who says he was an atheist until six years ago. 'There is nothing in there that says any Catholic will go to hell. I do not even indict the pope, though I do mention the office. It is the socio-political system that causes the problem.'

In several places, the advertisement takes pains to draw a distinction between the institutional Catholic Church and individual Catholics.

'Please keep in mind there are many wonderful Catholic Christians!' it says, introducing a number-packed section arguing that the Latin letters of the pope's title add up to 666, the supposed number of the biblical beast.

Scripture scholars and religious leaders have derided the kind of interpretation Person is offering.

'Sadly, this does reflect a brand of Christianity that is preached in pulpits and taught in Sunday schools that is very divisive,' says David Leslie, executive director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. 'It is anti-relational.'

Person says the Oregonian picked the Easter run date. But that was fine by him.'What could be a better day?' he says. 'Maybe that was God's timing, not mine.'

Patrick Stickel, president of the Oregonian Publishing Co., says running the ad was a 'tough call,' but that he would do it again if asked.

'We see ourselves as the only metropolitan paper in Portland, and we think long and hard about censoring anyone,' Stickel says.

'We don't find this graphically displeasing, and we find it easy for readers who don't like it to turn the page.'

The ad ran in other Northwest newspapers and quickly prompted one publisher to submit a printed apology to readers.

On March 14, the day after the ad appeared in the Longview Daily News, publisher Peter York wrote that the newspaper's decision to run the ad was a mistake - 'a doozy.'

'The ad overflows with offensive anti-Catholic rhetoric,' York wrote, admitting that he had not reviewed the text before it was printed.

'It is mean-spirited, hurtful, and in extraordinarily bad taste.'

York announced a new policy to refuse advertisements that attack religion. He also vowed to donate income from the ad to a local Catholic charity.

'When we err, as we did by running this ad, we want you to know that we are sincerely sorry,' York wrote.

The Oregon Conference of Seventh-day Adventists swiftly decried the ad.

Leadership of the church has sent pastors a recommended statement of disavowal.

'We are telling people to distance themselves from the hate stuff,' says Adventist spokeswoman Helen Smith.

'Let's not involve ourselves with this sort of thing. We want to create a mutual respect in Christianity.'

In 1993, billboards began appearing in Oregon with drawings of a papal tiara and evil eyes, along with oblique claims that the pontiff is the Antichrist.

Sponsors were a group of several dozen hardliners led by Larry Weathers, a barber from the small Southern Oregon town of Talent.

Billboards went up in Portland, Medford, and near Pendleton.

Along Interstate 5 near Medford, one of the billboard ads reappeared several months ago and has stayed.

In 1994, mass distribution on Portland doorsteps of an anti-Catholic tabloid frustrated Catholics who thought the attacks were over.

The paper bore a front-page photo of Pope John Paul in an amiable pose with President Clinton. It described a plot in which the Vatican vies for world control.

Splinter Adventist groups operate in a loose national network defined by trails of money and campaign literature. SDA Remnant Ministries of Medford had ties to Laymen for Religious Liberty, a larger group in Florida. A former Portland car salesman, Les Balsiger, has led an Oregon campaign from his home in Troy, Mont.

Many of the advertisements urge onlookers to read The Great Controversy, a book written in the 1840s by Ellen White, a woman influential in shaping the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Adventist officials say the publicity campaigns distort White's writings.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has more than 700,000 members in the United States and Canada and operates dozens of hospitals and clinics. Adventists focus on the Bible as literal revelation and emphasize the need to prepare for Christ's second coming.

One man who was part of the ad campaigns in the past has sworn them off.

'My approach is now to learn about the Savior and to present him,' says John Lineback of Independence.



- Ed Langlois