The general secretary of the World Council of Churches attended the mass in which Pope Francis, the new pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, was installed on 19 March at the Vatican in Rome in front of 200,000 people and millions watching on television or online.
The Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit joined prominent religious and political leaders from around the world at the mass in St Peter's Square, marking the official start of Francis’s papacy.
Ecumenical leaders present at the installation included Bartholomew I, the first Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople to attend a papal installation since the schism of 1054 - a hugely significant development.
The new pope stressed action with the poor and protecting the environment as God's gift in his inaugural homily.
Dr Tveit attended the event in order to give a “significant expression of the WCC’s collaboration with the Roman Catholic Church, as well as our mutual commitment to church unity and the ecumenical movement.”
“In close collaboration with Pope Francis, we look forward to building on this positive relationship with the Catholic Church that has been nurtured so carefully in the past,” stated Tveit in his letter to the new pope on 13 March.
Dr Tveit assured Pope Francis of his prayers. “Participating in common prayer to mark the start of Francis’s papacy highlights the ecumenical dimension of our shared spiritual life, the heart of what we share as Christians.”
“Let us use this opportunity to pray for and with Pope Francis to reconfirm that we need one another, to address the challenges of the world in our time,” said the WCC chief.
Less happily, the presence of Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe upset many. The Vatican stresses that it does not invite anyone to the installation of a pope, and that the decision of presidents and diplomats to attend or not does not confer either approval or disapproval.
The Vatican, being a city-state, is not subject to the European Union travel ban on Mr Mugabe, whose regime stands accused of widespread human rights abuses.
“President Mugabe's regime has abused the Christian values of love and compassion. It stands accused of kidnapping, detention without trial, torture, rape and murder," said UK-based campaigner Peter Tatchell yesterday.
“President Mugabe belongs in the dock at the International Criminal Court, not in the Vatican... What is the point of having human rights laws and travel bans if President Mugabe is allowed to flout them?”
Mr Tatchell has twice attempted a citizen’s arrest of the Zimbabwean dictator on charges of torture: in London in 1999 and again in Brussels in 2001. In Brussels he was beaten unconscious by President Mugabe’s bodyguards, resulting in brain and eye injuries.