ROME (RNS/ENInews) The head of the World Council of Churches met Pope Benedict XVI for the first time on Saturday (Dec. 4), saying he wants to strengthen cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church, especially in the Middle East.
No official statement was released after the audience at the Vatican, but WCC General Secretary Olav Fykse Tveit told journalists there had been “a very open and friendly” conversation.

Tveit said he and the pope mentioned ongoing cooperation between the Geneva-based WCC and the Vatican, even though the Vatican is not an official member of the global body of 349 Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox churches.

The Norwegian-born Tveit said he had presented the pope with a wooden box from Syria as a reminder of the Middle East, and a book of poetry by Norwegian poet Olav H. Hauge.

He had also offered the pontiff a pair of Norwegian wool gloves “because in winter they protect well from the cold. So, in this time, which, according to some people is an ecumenical winter, they are as a symbol of the possibility to go ahead, despite the difficulties, and to continue patiently our work for Christian unity.”

Tveit’s visit took place shortly after the Vatican’s chief ecumenical officer, Cardinal Kurt Koch, reportedly mentioned a crisis of ecumenism because of two “profoundly different mentalities” that shape the way Catholics and Protestants describe the nature of the church.

Tveit noted that the pope, as a theologian from Germany in the early 1970s, was a member of the WCC’s Faith and Order Commission on ecumenism, “so he knows very well a very important dimension of our work.”

The pope showed great interest in how the WCC will “strengthen the work of visible unity between the churches,” Tveit said.

“He emphasized in a very kind and also a very strong way the importance of the World Council of Churches’ work and the ministry I am called to do as general secretary.”

Tveit said he and the pope discussed ongoing tensions in Sudan, as well as the dwindling Christian population in Iraq and across the Middle East. “We talked about the situation in Israel and Palestine. And the churches there need to have a united witness,” he said.

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