In Athens on the morning of May 10, a 4 meter high cross made of Olive wood by a Jerusalem craftsman was sent from Jerusalem to Agios Andreas recreational centre, where 500 conference participants gathered on the beach to receive the cross and pray together, thus marked the beginning of the first Conference on World Mission and Evangelism held in the 21st century, which will last until May 16, 2005. The cross is intended as a symbol of reconiliation and healing as well as of churches standing with Christians in the Middle East.
The conference is organized by the World Council of Churches (WCC) with the theme "Come Holy Spirit, heal and reconcile!", where more than 500 representatives from all continents and all major churches and denominations have gathered.
The sub-theme is "Called in Christ to be reconciling and healing communities." The main aim of the conference is to provide a space for Christians and churches to exchange their experience and think together about priorities in missions and the future of Christian witness. The conference seeks to empower participants to continue to form healing communities in celebration and witness, reconciliation and forgiveness.
Rev. Ruth Bottoms, a Baptist pastor from the United kingdom who is moderating the conference says, "In our globalized and fragmented world, filled with much division and conflict, the gospel message of healing and reconciliation is vital."
In addition to the focus of reconciliation as the central element, one of the plenary sessions addresses the complex relationship between mission and violence.
For the first time ever, the plenary sessions will be broadcast live via the internet.
Aside from the plenary conference, around 70 workshops offering participants to discuss wide variety of issues in depth. These topics of discussion range from experiences of multi-dimensional healing to mission in war and conflict situations; from the role of women in mission to the relationship between healing, salvation and conversion; from the missionary challenge that people living with HIV/AIDS pose, to the way that indigenous people approach reconciliation and healing.
Specific case studies on, for example, the reconciliation process in Rwanda, joint mission experiences in Germany or Christian witness in China, will also form part of the workshops programme. This also includes a series of workshops about counseling in specific situations such as terminal illness, violence and abuse, among others.
According to WCC, those represented at the conference will extend beyond the membership of the convening World Council of Churches. Nearly a quarter of the participants are from Evangelical, Pentecostal and Roman Catholic traditions.
Since the first world mission conference that began in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910, it will be the most inclusive among the 12 such ecumenical mission conference.
The large spectrum of those gathered offers unusual opportunities.
If new convergence becomes possible or new efforts toward common witness are released, says Georges Lemopoulos, WCC deputy general secretary, the World Mission Conference in Athens "may become a new turning point in the history of both the missionary and the ecumenical movements."