updated 5/9/2005 7:12:58 PM ET 2005-05-09T23:12:58

Christian leaders, theologians and religious activists from around the world gathered Monday for a meeting to assess some of the most serious challenges for the faith, such as growing rifts between churches and African congregations ravaged by AIDS.

The last time the World Council of Churches staged such a conference was in Brazil nine years ago, when the agenda was heavy with issues about preserving cultural identity and Christian missionary expansion in the former East Bloc.

Now — in one of the ancient sites of Christianity — the planned discussions highlight some new concerns, including growing rifts among Christians over issues such as same-sex unions, the role of gay pastors and women’s contributions to worship. Also high on the list: ways to control AIDS and HIV in Africa and promoting interfaith dialogue with mainstream Muslims to offset the influence of Islamic extremists.

‘A journey, not an arrival’
“This conference has the feeling of a journey, not an arrival,” said the Rev. Ruth Bottoms, a Baptist minister from Britain who is overseeing the weeklong series of workshops and speeches that officially opens Tuesday. “We don’t want to hide our differences.”

The conference is expected to draw more than 500 participants representing nearly every corner of Christianity from evangelical movements to mainline Protestant groups to Orthodox and Roman Catholic envoys.

Some leaders, such as the late Pope John Paul II, made historic overtures to Orthodox churches to end a nearly 1,000-year estrangement over disputes centering on papal authority and, in recent years, the Vatican’s reach in traditional Orthodox lands. Some Protestant churches, meanwhile, have moved toward consolidation to counter shrinking congregations and resources.

But the conference may spend much of its energy on political and health problems outside doctrine.

Last month, the World Evangelical Alliance presented the U.N. Commission on Human Rights with an appeal claiming more than 200 million Christians worldwide are being denied religious liberty. The document listed more than a dozen countries, including China and several nations in Africa and central Asia.

Members of the alliance, which represents conservative Protestant denominations, are expected at the conference, which is being held at a seaside venue about 18 miles northeast of Athens. Also participating are top-level delegates from the Vatican, whose anti-condom stance may put it at odds with other religious leaders.

Addressing ‘human tragedy’ of AIDS
AIDS and HIV issues have become priorities for the WCC, a Geneva-based group with more than 350 member Christian churches. The Vatican is not a full member but collaborates on many WCC panels and initiatives.

“AIDS and HIV is a major human tragedy,” said Alexander Belopopsky, a WCC spokesman.

The WCC also serves as one of the top forums for inter-religious dialogue and other ecumenical efforts. But the conference is not expected to bring any landmark shifts.

Its chief goal, according to organizers, is to advance discussions on ways to reach greater common ground.

“This conference brings together the widest possible constituency,” Bottoms said.

Impact of new pontiff considered
Other topics that could be raised at the conference include whether new Pope Benedict XVI will seek even more substantial contacts with other Christian churches, and ways to energize mainstream churches in the West facing shrinking congregations and competition from non-denominational movements.

In central Athens, about 500 supporters of a hard-line Orthodox movement staged a protest to denounce the conference and other initiatives, such as Greek government plans to build Athens’ first mosque in more than 170 years.

The Greek Orthodox Movement for Salvation saw the WCC gathering as an affront to Orthodoxy’s role as one of the most visible links to early Christian worship.

Banners read: “No to the pan-religious heretical congress” and “The Church is Orthodox: Every other church and religion are machinations of the devil.”

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