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World Council of Churches assembly opens in Brazil

Interfaith dialogue is high on the agenda for leaders of the world’s major Christian traditions gathering in the southern Brazil city of Porto Alegre for the once-every-seven-years assembly of the World Council of Churches.

The meeting opens on 14 February and takes place against a background of an upsurge in tensions in faith communities triggered by the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper and subsequent protests, sometimes violent, against the caricatures.

When he delivers his main report to the meeting on 15 February, WCC general secretary the Rev. Samuel Kobia is expected to stress that the WCC needs to make inter-faith dialogue a key priority for its future work.

"While the 20th century was dominated by confrontations between ideologies, ‘identity’ is emerging as one of the characteristic divisive features of the 21st century," Kobia said in a statement in advance of the 14-23 February meeting.

Kobia, a Methodist from Kenya who took office as WCC general secretary in January 2004, has repeatedly emphasised the need for churches to respond to a global shift in the centre of gravity of Christianity from the northern to the southern hemisphere.

Some observers have seen this shift as being in part responsible for the strains within some church traditions, such as the Anglican Communion, faced between adherents in the northern and southern hemispheres over issues such as homosexuality.

"The WCC has successfully provided a platform for churches to discuss critical differences in a responsible way," Kobia has noted. "It must continue to enable the churches to confront their differences in dialogue, and to rediscover a common voice wherever possible."

Kobia has also drawn attention to the rapid expansion throughout the world in Pentecostal and charismatic spirituality, a segment of Christianity that by-and-large does not belong to the WCC.

The WCC’s more than 340 member churches are drawn predominantly from Protestant, Anglican and Christian Orthodox traditions. The Roman Catholic Church does not belong to the grouping but cooperates with the church council in many areas. It is sending a delegation of observers to the WCC assembly led by Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

As well as multi-religious plurality, the 4000 participants at the Porto Alegre meeting are expected to focus on themes ranging from economic justice in the face of inequities and hardships caused by globalisation to the situation of churches in Latin America.

The gathering also marks the mid-point of the WCC’s Decade to Overcome Violence: 2001-2010, an initiative launched at the last council assembly in Harare. Kobia says it has taken on increased urgency following the continuing conflict in Iraq and a war on terror.

The Porto Alegre gathering is also the first WCC assembly to take place since a new method of voting by consensus was adopted by the church grouping to replace the system of parliamentary majority votes. This decision-making procedure was one of a number of proposals made by a special commission set up to look at the participation of Orthodox churches in the WCC.

Many Orthodox church leaders had complained that because their churches were a numerical minority among WCC member churches they were marginalised by majority-voting procedures.

Previous WCC assemblies have met in Amsterdam, the Netherlands (1948); Evanston, United States (1954); New Delhi, India (1961); Uppsala, Sweden (1968); Nairobi, Kenya (1975); Vancouver, Canada (1983); Canberra, Australia (1991); and Harare, Zimbabwe (1998).

(c) Ecumenical News International