This was not exactly the best of weeks for America's best-known evangelist.

First, the Rev. Billy Graham, attending a religious peace conference in the Soviet Union, said that he had seen no direct evidence of religious repression in Russia, adding that "there is a lot more freedom of religion here than has been given the impression in the States . . . ."

Then the next day, as he was preparing to leave for Paris and then London, he praised Soviet churches as "free" unlike Britain's Anglican Church. "This is a free church," Graham said, comparing the Russian Orthodox Church to the Anglican Church, which he said was headed by Queen Elizabeth. "This is not a state church."

The result has been a surge of criticism, tempered by the assumption that Graham faced extremely difficult circumstances.

Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell and other U.S. religious leaders said Graham was used as a propaganda tool and was either badly mistaken or "incredibly naive" in saying the Soviet people have religious freedom.

"I sincerely hope he was misquoted or taken out of context because there is no religious liberty in the Soviet Union," Falwell said.

"Everything the Soviets do is for propaganda purposes," Falwell said, "and for their advantage. I don't think he had any wrong intentions whatever. I think the Soviets had all the wrong intentions."

The Rev. Edmund W. Robb, chairman of the Institute of Religion and Democracy in Washington, said Graham was "manipulated to give legitimacy to a conference controlled by the Soviet government."

"There is no question about his integrity and good intentions, but he is apparently so anxious to be an apostle of peace that he's blinded to some of the realities of the world, one being Soviet oppression of the church," said Robb, a United Methodist.

The Rev. Gene Owens of Charlotte, N.C., Graham's hometown, said Graham's remarks were misinterpreted and that he does not believe there is total religious freedom in the Soviet Union.

"I think that what he is saying is at a regularly scheduled worship service no one is prohibited from attending . . . ," Owens said.

Graham said he attended Russian Orthodox services at three churches one night and all were packed and said, "You'd never get that in Charlotte, North Carolina."

"If Billy Graham were preaching at any church in Charlotte on Saturday, it would be packed," Owen said.

The Rev. Keith Bridston, a Lutheran who heads the U.S. Conference of the World Council of Churches, said such a visit was bound to be misunderstood, but "basically I applaud him for it."

"Perhaps he could have been more candid and critical, but you can't stand off afar and judge someone in a difficult situation," he said.

Graham apparently chose "private representations" with Soviet officials to try to enhance religious rights there rather than "public outcry," Bridston said, calling both "viable options."

Russell Shaw, public affairs director for the U.S. Catholic Conference, said "It's very easy to second-guess somebody in a difficult situation. Someone else might have done it differently, but I don't see any good in second-guessing Dr. Graham on it. He's no babe in the woods.

"He went with his eyes wide open, knowing the conference was taking place under questionable auspices and probably rigged as a propaganda exercise," Shaw said. "But it was one more opportunity to try to break down walls of fears and suspicions that divide people. Any opportunity is worth making the effort."

However, Robb said "the vast majority of evangelicals are very concerned at Billy's new peace emphasis, and particularly his trip to the Soviet Union . . . .

"I agree that in the circumstances, he should not have openly lambasted the authorities, but neither should he have made a statement that can be construed as apologetic for them," Robb said.