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World church assembly ends wanting closer moves to Catholics, Pentecostals

The World Council of Churches ended its once every seven years assembly held in Brazil with calls to reach out to Roman Catholic, Pentecostal and Evangelical churches that do not belong to the Geneva-based grouping.

"The quest for the visible unity of the church remains at the heart of the WCC," stated a policy document presented on the last day of the grouping’s 14-23 February assembly in Porto Alegre. "Our ultimate vision is that we will achieve, by God’s grace, the visible unity of Christ’s Church and will be able to welcome one another at the Lord’s table, to reconcile our ministries, and to be committed together to the reconciliation of the world."

It was the first assembly in Latin America for the church grouping whose more than 340 members are drawn predominantly from Protestant, Anglican and Christian Orthodox traditions.

The gathering urged an easing of the region’s debt burden, describing it as "unjust, illegitimate and immoral", noting that according to UN statistics, 40 per cent of Latin Americans live in poverty.

With Brazilian Lutheran Walter Altmann elected as moderator of the WCC’s main governing body, the central committee, alongside Kenyan Methodist, Samuel Kobia, as the group’s general secretary, participants said they will look to the WCC to articulate the voice of the global South in coming debates about globalisation and economic injustice.

Still, some speakers noted that globalisation was impacting not only on economic relations, but also the WCC’s task to promote Christian unity.

"In this period of globalisation it is not only a dream," said Orthodox Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania, one of the newly-elected WCC presidents, in a reference to church unity. "It is a duty and it is a necessity."

The assembly was also the first meeting of the WCC’s highest decision-making body since the election in 2005 of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI.

The Catholic Church does not belong to the grouping but cooperates with the church council in many areas, and, in a message to the assembly, Pope Benedict spoke of the need for a "solid partnership" with the WCC. Some participants recalled that after his election as pontiff, Benedict had spoken of the need for "concrete steps" to achieve Christian unity.

These could include churches celebrating Easter on the same date and recognising each other’s baptism, said Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. He was echoing remarks by outgoing WCC moderator Catholicos Aram I of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

The WCC assembly said it hoped for "substantial progress" on these issues by the time of its next assembly, "all on the way towards visible unity and a shared Eucharist".

Still, it was Benedict as the guardian of the Vatican’s doctrine before he became Pope, who issued a statement restating that Protestant denominations are not churches in the "proper sense" of the word.

"If we cannot recognise each other as churches in the full sense of the word, it is very difficult for us to call the peoples of the world to more unity," noted German Lutheran Bishop Margot Kässmann.

This concern was also expressed by a representative from Christianity’s fast-growing Pentecostal sector, which for the most part does not belong to the WCC.

"We need to accept one another without reservation, without dividing churches into first-class and second-class," said Norberto Saracco, an Argentinian Pentecostal pastor and scholar.

In the run-up to the assembly, WCC leaders had stressed the importance of inter-faith dialogue, a challenge that was underlined by the controversy over cartoons caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad which generated worldwide protests, some of them violent.

The WCC assembly deplored publication of the cartoons as well as violent demonstrations, and called on WCC members to join in non-violent protests with those experiencing attacks on their religion.

"Faced with the publication of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad of Islam … we recognise it is crucial to strengthen dialogue and cooperation between Christians and Muslims," the assembly stated.

Still, the gathering was also challenged by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to recognise the plight and courage of small Christian communities in places such as the Middle East and Pakistan.

"This is not the climate of ‘dialogue’ as it happens in the West or in the comfortable setting of international conferences; it is the painful making and remaking of trust in a deeply unsafe and complex environment," noted Williams, the leader of the worldwide Anglican communion.

The WCC gathering saw the mid-point of the WCC’s Decade to Overcome Violence initiative, which was marked by a thousand-strong march through the streets of Porto Alegre led by Nobel Peace Prize laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Adolfo Perez Esquivel.

"You know, they marched in Berlin, and the Berlin Wall fell," Tutu told the crowd. "They marched in South Africa, and apartheid fell. Now we march in Porto Alegre, and violence will end."

(c) Ecumenical News International