GENEVA -- The World Council of Churches on Thursday chose the Rev. Samuel Kobia of Kenya as its leader, the first African to head the 55-year-old organization of Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox churches.
"To inspire the world we need inner strength," Kobia told the 158-member Central Committee following his election. "Our strength lies also in our unity."
Kobia, currently the council's special representative for Africa, will succeed the Rev. Konrad Raiser of the Evangelical Church in Germany as the body's secretary general next January.
His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of Cilicia (Lebanon) of the Armenian Orthodox Church, told Kobia, "I am sure that you will accept this call, which we believe is from God, to serve the ecumenical cause."
The council groups 341 member churches in more than 100 countries, aiming to promote unity and dialogue between the world's denominations. It works cooperatively with the Vatican, but the Roman Catholic Church is not a member.
Kobia, 56, is an ordained minister in the Methodist Church in Kenya. He has diplomas from St. Paul's United Theological Collage in Kenya and from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, the council said. He also obtained a master's degree in city planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He has served as general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Kenya and helped reorganize the Zimbabwe Christian Council after independence.
He chaired peace talks for Sudan in 1991 and the following year headed Kenya's National Election Monitoring Unit, a council statement said. He also has written books on social and theological issues in Kenya and on the future of Africa.
The council, which has seen a decline in contributions from mainline Protestant churches in the West in recent years, says a belt-tightening campaign has improved its financial position.
But Raiser told the Central Committee on Thursday that the council is still running a deficit "and the decline of contributions income has not been halted."
The organization has been less at the center of controversy than in previous decades, when critics said its social action overshadowed its work on church unity and basic faith.
A program begun in 1970 to combat racism was the center of much of the controversy. It distributed millions of dollars to groups opposing racial injustice. Although it specified the money was only for humanitarian uses, some of it went to groups using force in southern Africa.
The church also has been seeking to bridge differences in its own membership between western Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches.
Tensions have stemmed from differences over the ordination of women, which Orthodox churches and some other member churches oppose.