On the eve of the 13th Conference on World Mission and Evangelism, starting today and running to May 16 and being held for the the first time in Greece, the Reverend Dr Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), spoke to Kathimerini about the purpose of the conference of 700 delegates of Christian churches. The WCC is the world’s largest inter-church organization, bringing together 347 churches from virtually all the historical Protestant, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox traditions in over 100 countries. Founded in 1948, the main purpose of WCC is to assist the Christian churches to find ways of restoring their unity in witness and service and to uphold a common Christian voice in the world. Within the ecumenical dialogue and cooperation of the churches that participate in the WCC, what is the goal of the meeting in Athens? The 13th Conference on World Mission and Evangelism is meeting for the first time in Greece. The event will be one of the broadest gatherings of church representatives in the early 21st century, with some 700 participants from almost all regions and expressions of Christianity – Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant. The conference’s goal is to offer representatives of a wide range of churches to exchange experiences in missionary work and to think together about the priorities and the future of Christian witness.The conference will not seek a uniform understanding of mission, but it will highlight what churches can say and hopefully do together in the mission field. There are a number of people in Greece who are opposed to the actions of the WCC and to ecumenical dialogue. Do you believe this conference will promote understanding between the churches? Dialogue is in the nature of mankind! The conference is a unique space of encounter around a common concern for churches with clearly different identities. We want people to take concerns of Christian mission seriously, even if they do not agree on everything, and we are confident that the conference will lead to a better mutual understanding among churches. By hosting this historical event of the Christian family in Athens, the Church of Greece is demonstrating that «Philoxenia» is an essential Christian value and Greek tradition, as the Greek state did during the Olympic Games. Where is ecumenical dialogue today and what is the contribution of the Orthodox churches to that? The election of a new pope and his emphasis on Christian unity are an important confirmation that inter-church dialogue remains a priority for all churches. The contribution of the Orthodox churches to inter-church dialogue has been very important. It was an Orthodox church – the Ecumenical Patriarchate – which first launched the idea of a «koinonia» of churches in 1921, and in the 20th century, Orthodox theologians and leaders had a formative influence on the WCC, especially in the area of mission theology. Several Orthodox churches, including the Church of Greece, were founders of the WCC. The Orthodox have also been among the serious critics of some of the trends and priorities in the WCC. In direct response to these concerns of its Orthodox member churches, the WCC undertook a process of internal dialogue and fundamental change in recent years, reforming several aspects of the way it works. I am hopeful that the mission conference in Athens – the first in a majority Orthodox context – will be a special opportunity for the Orthodox churches to affirm their commitment to dialogue with other Christians. The Orthodox and the Roman Catholics are opposed to the notion of women priests. What is your personal opinion on that? The ordination of women in some Protestant and Anglican churches is a relatively new decision and we are aware that it has proved to be a divisive issue among churches. Here as in other areas, the WCC does not «take sides» on these issues, but seeks to take seriously the social and theological implications of these realities. How does the WCC react to a number of social issues such as homosexuality, HIV and contraception? The WCC has no authority over its members, but we believe the Christian voice on social and ethical issues is stronger when the churches can agree together. The WCC is working with its member churches in addressing the human tragedy of HIV/AIDS, especially in Africa. We are active in areas like theological education, pastoral training and healthcare to strengthen the impact of churches in prevention, compassion and cure. Questions about homosexuality and contraception are primarily pastoral issues about which different member churches have different understandings and approaches. Here also, the Council tries to find ways for churches to discuss and understand their differences without conflict. How important and necessary is the dialogue between the Christian churches, different religions and civilizations nowadays? We live in a time when religious identities are often manipulated for narrow nationalistic ends, and the idea of a «clash of civilizations» is used to legitimate war and conflict. We are convinced that Christian churches, religions and civilizations must learn to listen to each other and seek understanding and join actions for the common good of humankind. I believe that one of the main roles of the WCC is to offer a «bridge of understanding» among churches and cultures, for the life of the world.