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NCC General Assembly Meets Nov. 14-16
Under the Theme "For the Common Good"

November 15, 2002, TAMPA, Fla. -- If pressed to characterize the National Council of Churches’ 2002 annual General Assembly in a word, that word might well be “solidarity.”  Two days into the meeting – being held this year in Tampa, Fla., Nov. 14-16 – it seems that at least the concept if not the word “solidarity” has been on the lips of speakers, whatever their topic.

Especially in this “post-9/11” age, “we need a new and better vision of what it means to be one in Christ,” said the Rev. Fred Morris, Delegates to the NCC General Assembly reflect the wide range of the Christian experience in the United States.Executive Director of the Florida Council of Churches, in his welcome to the General Assembly on Thursday.  “That vision has to be around the concept of solidarity.” 

Unanimity often eludes a body as diverse as the National Council of Churches – with 36 mainline Protestant, Orthodox, African American and Peace churches comprising 50 million adherents in 140,000 local congregations.  But solidarity – a commitment to the common good – is another matter. 

The 2002 Assembly took as its theme “For the Common Good: Seeking Justice, Working for Peace.”  Nearly 200 delegates convened for the opening plenary session, which included Bible study by Dr. Mozella Mitchell of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and an address by Dr. Dana L. Robert, Truman Collins Professor of World Mission at Boston University School of Theology.

Dr. Robert was the Thursday, Nov. 14, keynoter, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of interdenominational cooperation in interpreting the missionary enterprise to congregations.  The celebration also included a luncheon and preview of a new mission education highlights video, and worship led by the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Thuma Mina Mission Theatre Company (see photo at right, below).

“Among the many reasons why we celebrate the Mission Education Movement today,” Dr. Robert said, “is that it links the Eurocentric Christianity of 1902 to the global community of 2002.  Opening worship featured a performance by the Thuma Mina Mission Theatre Company in celebration of the 100th anniversary of mission education.The Mission Education Movement was the major way in which mainline Protestants, who numerically dominated North American missions until the late 1960s, taught ordinary church goers about the mission of the church….

“Despite its well-publicized faults,” she said, “the missionary movement planted the seeds and cultivated the world church that exists today….Mission education was the way in which many denominations came to look beyond themselves to a grand vision of the kingdom in which all of Christ’s people have a place at the table.”

Today, division over the meaning of mission “runs like a fault line” down the middle of many of our denominations, Dr. Robert acknowledged.  “But as long as injustice and oppression remain, as long as people do not experience the power of the living Christ in their lives, as long as our people remain complacent about their obligation to work toward God’s reign in the world, then we still need a Mission Education Movement.”

The Friday, Nov. 15, keynoter, Dr. Tarek Mitri, came at the solidarity theme from another angle – that of Christian-Muslim relations.  Dr. Mitri, an Orthodox Christian from Lebanon, is Program Executive for Christian-Muslim Relations and Dialogue with the World Council of Churches, Geneva, Switzerland.

Speaking on the theme “Christian-Muslim Relations: Historical Realities and Today’s Relationships,” he traced the nuanced and complex history of Christian-Muslim relations through the centuries and on that foundation commented on today’s realities – in what some call a “post-9/11 world.”

“It is not uncommon to see people rushing to explain terrorist violence in the light of what they perceive to be distinctive about Islam.  Thus, they fail to see that such violence is not grounded in traditional Islamic values,” Dr. Mitri said.  “But quite the contrary, it is provoked by the loss of such values….”

Dr. Mitri warned against “globalizing” Christian-Muslim relations; among other things, pitting “Islam” and “the West” against each other.  “Christianity and Islam are not two monolithic blocks confronting each other,” he said. 

“In dialogue with each other, they understand justice to be a universal value grounded in their faith and are called to take sides with the oppressed and marginalized, irrespective of their religious identity.

“Justice,” Dr. Mitri said, “is an expression of a religious commitment that extends beyond the boundaries of one’s own religious community.  Muslims and Christians uphold their own religious values and ideals when they take a common stand in solidarity with, or in defense of, the victims of oppression and exclusion.”

In places where there are difficulties between minority Christian communities and majority Muslim communities, he said, American Christians who want to help must first recognize that “attention to the specific local causes of conflicts helps identify solutions.”  Defective social and economic orders and human weakness must be acknowledged.

“Insist on the indivisibility of human rights,” Dr. Mitri said.  “Co-citizenship, equality, the rule of law and human rights need to be at the heart of Christian-Muslim relations.  Many of the interests of Christian minorities cannot be safeguarded and promoted except in conjunction with those of the Muslim majorities amongst whom they live….

“Defending the rights of Christians in opposition to their Muslim co-citizens and neighbors, with whom they share culture and national identity, aggravates the suspicion of majorities toward minorities seen as an instrument of a real or potential threat instigated by foreign and powerful forces,” he said.

Following his address, General Assembly delegates engaged Dr. Mitri in a lively debate around harassment and persecution of Christians and the best strategies for helping.

For example, can Coptic Christians in Egypt best improve their religious and civil rights through struggle together of Christians and Muslims, affirming their co-citizenship and patriotism, or do they ask foreign support to destabilize their own home country?, he asked rhetorically.

Another delegate asked whether Middle Eastern Muslims are actively countering stereotyping of American Christians.  Dr. Mitri replied that indeed some are. 

Recently, when televangelist Jerry Falwell called the founder of Islam a terrorist, and the National Council of Churches repudiated that statement, Dr. Mitri said he “was positively surprised to see in the Egyptian press people who normally attack Western Christian Protestantism…highlight what the NCC was saying and acknowledge that U.S. Christians are divided.”  Just 10 years ago, it would have been rare to make that distinction.  “I think this is an improvement,” he said.

Dr. Mitri also shared with General Assembly delegates a letter from Riad Jarjour, General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches.  Expressing alarm that the Middle East appears to be “on the brink of all-out war,” Dr. Jarjour wrote, “We plead with you to exert your spiritual authority to urge the (Bush) Administration to … seek peace and to do justice with compassion.” Click here for Dr. Mitri's text.

Also on Thursday:

  • Delegates engaged in reflection together on the “Changing Landscape of the Ecumenical Movement Today” and what that means for the future of the National Council of Churches.  Among visions expressed: a re-energizing of ecumenical work for racial justice; ecumenical formation of Christian youth, especially for life in a religiously pluralistic world; an ecumenical movement concerned both with social justice and with theology and mission, and closer relationships between national ecumenism and local congregations.

  • NCC General Secretary Robert W. Edgar and President Elenie Huszagh brought reports, confirming among other things the Council’s financial stability and optimistic outlook for 2002-2003.   Assembly delegates applauded the NCC officers’ recommendation that Dr. Edgar serve a second term (2004-2007) as general secretary.  Dr. Edgar’s name will come before the November 2003 General Assembly for formal action as his first term (2000-2003) nears its conclusion.

And on Friday:

  • The Rev. Dr. Major L. Jemison, President of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., led worship, and the Rev. Dr. Robert H. Roberts of the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. led Bible study.
  • The Assembly began debate on a statement, “After September 11, 2001: Public Policy Considerations for the United States of America.”
  • Delegates participated in forums on Christian-Muslim relations, public education, ministerial ethics and accountability, Africa, health care for all, Christian feminism, Middle East peace, diversity and bioethics.
  • John L. McCullough, Executive Director of Church World Service – the global humanitarian agency of the 36 member churches – updated the Assembly on work including a new Africa Initiative, Dec. 1-11 concert tour to raise money for HIV/AIDS ministries in Africa, and advocacy on behalf of asylum seekers, especially the more than 200 Haitians whose boat landed in Florida Oct. 29.

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Index to Stories and Documentation from the 2002 General Assembly:

NCC General Assembly Meets Nov. 14-16 Under the Theme "For the Common Good"

NCC to U.S.: "Do All Possible, Without Going to War" to Resolve the Iraq Crisis
Full text: "After September 11, 2001: Public Policy Considerations for the United States of America"
Full text: "Resolution Expressing Appreciation for the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Statement on Iraq"

NCC General Assembly Concludes with Awards, RSV Celebration, Resolutions
Full text:
Resolution Recognizing the Patriarch of Jerusalem
Full text: Resolution Establishing an Exploratory Commission on Human Genetic Technologies

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