AGIOS ANDREAS, Greece - Christian churches must set aside differences and adopt less confrontational approaches toward other faiths in an age of mobile populations and strains between the West and the Islamic world, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church told a global religious conference Tuesday.
"The consequences of globalization, terrorism and the war on terror require that Christian churches rediscover their prophetic voice... to raise their voice and be on the side of peace," Archbishop Christodoulos said, opening a weeklong gathering of more than 500 Christian leaders and theologians here to examine challenges to the faith.
The secretary-general of the World Council of Churches - the organizers of the conference - also noted the "demographic center" of Christianity is shifting into the southern hemisphere led by explosive growth in African congregations and rising populations in Latin America.
The Rev. Samuel Kobia encouraged churches to seek new ideas to make Christianity relevant to cultures unfamiliar with European traditions and to avoid the "insensitive" methods that undermine local languages and customs.
"Christianity's center of gravity... continues to migrate southward," said Kobia, a Kenyan. "Our vision must undergo a corresponding conversion."
He added: "As we seek to overcome tensions between North and South, we must also be converted to a new sense of unity joining East and West," Kobia said. He urged for a "major step forward" in Christian-Islamic contacts during a WCC interfaith gathering in June at the group's headquarters in Geneva.
Contacts with other faiths may also be raised during a planned meeting between Kobia and Pope Benedict XVI next month at the Vatican.
Christodoulos, too, warned that old models of Christian attitudes and missionary work are quickly becoming obsolete as cultures and faiths increasingly intermingle.
"The growing effect of globalization - as a cultural and not as a financial phenomenon any more - the opening of national frontiers and the increasing move of populations from one place to another puts our Christian witness in a totally different situation than that of the past," Christodoulos told the conference at a seaside venue 18 miles northeast of Athens.
"This is even more urgent now, in the post-Sept. 11 world, than in earlier times," he added, urging a "more humble ethos" among Christian churches and rejection of the "overoptimistic tones" of some missionary groups.
Christodoulos' comments struck some of the major hurdles facing the conference - which draws together Christians from nearly every tradition.
Evangelical groups, which have sharply raised their profile in central Asia and Africa in the past decade, may resist appeals for less aggressive outreach. The gathering also will grapple with the galloping pace of globalization and its effects on traditional economies and religious life. Also on the meeting's ambitious agenda: ways to enhance dialogue with moderate Muslim leaders and control the spread of AIDS.
Christodoulos mentioned another huge challenge for Christian leaders: overcoming historical rifts in the spirit of unity.
He offered encouragement for reconciliation, but mentioned the "past bitter experience" of the Western Crusades into the mostly Orthodox East. He also pointed out one of the biggest obstacles in closing the nearly 1,000-year-old rift with Roman Catholics: the Eastern Rite churches that follow many Orthodox traditions but are loyal to the Vatican.
Orthodox clerics claim the Eastern Rite congregations are an attempt by the Vatican to encroach on historically Orthodox lands.
The Vatican has a delegation at the conference, although it is not a full member of the WCC. The organization includes more than 350 member Christian churches and is one of the major forums for interfaith talks and efforts to improve Christian cooperation.
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