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09.05.05 09:27 Age: 7 yrs

World church gathering on mission opening in Athens


By Stephen Brown

Athens, 9 May (ENI)--Christians from all around the globe have gathered in Athens for a World Council of Churches' conference due to open on Monday, reaching across a nearly 1000-year breach between Eastern and Western traditions of their religion.

The 8-day WCC Conference on World Mission and Evangelism focussing on Christians sharing their faith with others, will bring to the Greek capital about 500 participants from many Christian traditions.

There have been 12 such world mission conferences since 1910 (see ENI-05-0334), but the Athens meeting is the first to be held in a country where most people belong to the Orthodox Church.

Eastern Orthodox and Western Christianity split in 1054. Many Orthodox Christians in Greece and elsewhere remember with bitterness the destruction of Constantinople, the capital of the Orthodox world, 150 years later by Latin Christians during the Crusades.

More recently, missionary activities by some other denominations in traditionally Orthodox countries have created deep suspicion among Orthodox church leaders. They have denounced as proselytism what they say is an attempt to win converts among their faithful.

The theme of the Athens gathering is "Come Holy Spirit, Heal and Reconcile" and it is seen as an endeavour by the WCC to tackle the old issues that rankle, among others.

The Geneva-based WCC has 347 member churches, mainly from Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox church traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a WCC member but for the first time it is sending delegates to a WCC mission conference. Previously it sent observers.

Evangelical and Pentecostal groups that do not belong to the WCC are also to be represented at the Athens meeting.

"The Orthodox tradition has a long history in the WCC but the reality for our other member churches is that they do not necessarily encounter those of Orthodox tradition in their day-to-day work," the Rev. Ruth Bottoms, a Baptist minister from Britain who is moderator of the conference, told a media conference on Monday.

"I hope there will be a building of trust, a deepening of understanding and of relationships, including a deeper understanding of the differences, but also a recognition of our common humanity and our common areas of concern," she said.

A 4-metre high wooden cross was scheduled to arrive on Tuesday by boat at the conference centre on the Aegean Sea. It has been made by a Jerusalem craftsman and is intended as a symbol of churches standing in solidarity with Christians in the Middle East.

It is also seen as a reminder of St Paul who in the first century travelled by boat to spread the Christian message to Athens and other places.