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GENEVA (Reuters) - The top global grouping of Protestant and Orthodox churches elected as its new head on Thursday a Norwegian Lutheran who wants it to do more to support Christians in Muslim countries.
The incoming general-secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), Olav Fykse Tveit, will have to tread a fine line on the Middle East after his predecessor denounced Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands as "a sin against God."
Tveit, 48, was chosen by the 150-member Central Committee of the WCC -- which links 560 million Christians in 349 churches and communities in 110 countries -- in a two-candidate contest with a South Korean Presbyterian theologian, Seong-won Park.
Tveit, who takes over on January 1 from Kenyan Methodist Samuel Kobia, did not set out the policies he plans to follow at the head of the 60-year-old body during his brief acceptance speech.
But insiders say that, apart from the problem of Christian minorities under Islam and the expected fall-out from Kobia's Israeli "sin" comment, as a liberal he will have to handle growing dissent from Orthodox churches on gay sex issues.
In an interview with the German newspaper Rheinischer Merkur this month, Tveit said the WCC needed "to deal intensively with Islam," adding it could not leave churches in Islamic states to deal alone with the problems they face.
"But we should not increase tensions through thoughtless comments," he said.
However, he made clear he felt the WCC should take the path proclaimed by his own church in Norway of working together with Muslim representatives for religious freedom that explicitly included the right to change one's religion.
That is a major divide not only between Christian churches and Islam but in U.N. human rights bodies where Muslim countries argue their own laws against "apostasy" -- or leaving Islam -- take precedence over global norms.
Tveit, who has chaired a WCC group on Israel and the Palestinians, raised Israeli ire in January for his criticism of the Jewish state's invasion of Gaza, and the WCC itself has often taken a strong line on Israeli policies.
But analysts tracking the ecumenical body, which has relations with the Vatican and cooperates with it on some issues although the Catholic Church is not a member, say Kobia's comments this week were the fiercest yet.
"Occupation, along with the concomitant humiliation of a whole people for over six decades, constitutes not just economic and political crimes but, like anti-Semitism, it is a sin against God," Kobia told the Central Committee on Tuesday.
He urged the WCC's ruling body to adopt an explicit statement on this issue, a move insiders said was unlikely to be welcomed by Tveit who wants to see Evangelical and Pentecostal churches -- many sympathetic to Israel -- join the WCC.
Kobia, serving since 2004, had originally been expected to seek a second 4-year term when his first ran out last year. But this was derailed when it emerged that his theology doctorate had been issued by an unregistered U.S. university.
Editing by Jonathan Lynn