Religious leader urges responsibility

Porto Alegre, Barzil - Freedom of expression is a "fundamental human right," the head of the world's largest Christian umbrella group said Tuesday, but Muslim rage over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad shows that the world must still tread with caution when dealing with religious views.

The comments by the Rev. Samuel Kobia - at the beginning of a 10-day global assembly by the World Council of Churches - illustrated how dialogue with Islam and worries over mounting religious-inspired violence have become priorities for the group's more than 350 member churches.

"Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right," said Kobia, the WCC's general secretary, "but that is not the right to say anything for any reason. Used to devalue human dignity, it devalues the very freedoms on which it is based."

Kobia, a Methodist pastor from Kenya, said both Muslims and Christians have responsibilities to "work together" to end the unrest over the cartoons, which included riots and attacks on Western-affiliated hotels and restaurants in two Pakistani cities on Tuesday.

"The cartoons have sparked a fire," Kobia told a news conference. "The question now is: How do we put out that fire?"

The WCC gathering - its biggest and most ambitious in nearly a decade - is expected to include further discussion of the role of Christian churches and democratic traditions in an age of rising terrorism and deepening rifts between the West and Muslim world.

Speakers and messages to open the WCC meeting repeatedly urged Christian churches to look beyond differences that undermine unity within the faith, such as intense disputes over homosexual clergy and tolerance of same-sex blessing ceremonies. WCC members include mainline Protestants, Anglicans and Orthodox churches representing more than 500 million followers. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member, but cooperates on many levels.

"In the face of so much disorder in our so-called world order, we cannot allow ourselves to be overwhelmed or distracted, however conscious we are of our own fractured condition as churches," said a message from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, which is under the most direct threat of rupture along liberal and conservative lines.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican's council for Christian unity, read a letter from Pope Benedict XVI noting "spiritual closeness" with the WCC's goals.

Other issues on the wide-ranging WCC agenda include discussions on church aid to fight AIDS, human trafficking and to assist in international debt relief programs.