Dr. Isabel Apawo Phiri, Deputy General Secretary, WCC
Dr. Isabel Apawo Phiri, Deputy General Secretary, WCC, Photo: The United Church of Canada

Global Partner Dr. Isabel Apawo Phiri

With significant high-profile programs to administer, Dr. Isabel Apawo Phiri, Deputy General Secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), has seen her share of controversy.

Her job includes leadership to the areas of public witness and diakonia, with an emphasis on racism, economic justice, human sexuality, creating a just community of men and women, climate change, and seeking a just peace—including the WCC’s Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel.

Last December Phiri was detained at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport for eight hours, and then refused entry into Israel, while en route to a meeting with church leaders in Jerusalem. The meeting was about the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme, which The United Church of Canada has participated in since its inception in 2002.

Initially, Phiri was told that she was being refused entry because she was the leader of the EAPPI at the World Council of Churches. Then, as she was leaving, the excuse was an allegation that some previous Ecumenical Accompaniers had engaged in protests. (Participation in protests by EAs is discouraged, but providing protective presence is not.)

When Phiri landed back in Geneva, she was told she had been refused entry because she was a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) activist against Israel. However, she says that never came up in conversation at the airport in Israel. “For me, that was a huge surprise,” recalls Phiri.

Later, when the WCC hired a lawyer to pursue the matter, she was told it was not about her as an individual but because the WCC supports BDS.

The Central Committee of the WCC is not supportive of the global BDS movement, but like the United Church it has offered its support for a specific boycott of goods made in the settlements in occupied Palestinian territories. “The Israeli government struggles with the World Council of Churches itself. The WCC is not listed in the [Israeli list of] banned organizations,” says Phiri. “We are there for peace between Israel and Palestinians—and a peace with justice.”

The World Council of Churches is an ecumenical movement that brings together churches, denominations, and church fellowships from 140 countries and territories throughout the world. Founded in 1948, churches in the fellowship of the WCC pursue a vision of ecumenism that seeks visible unity in one faith and one eucharistic fellowship. The United Church of Canada is a member of the WCC.

A teacher by profession, Phiri serves the World Council of Churches as a lay person, with a doctorate in feminist theology and African theology. In Malawi, her upbringing was Presbyterian in the Presbyterian Church of Central Africa. Today she is an elder in the Church of Scotland in Geneva, Switzerland.

She openly talks about how the World Council of Churches struggles financially, but suggests that tight finances has actually been an opportunity for its member churches to work more closely together. “I see a new revival or a new ecumenical movement—focusing more on working together, praying together, and walking together on the pilgrimage of justice and peace,” says Phiri.

Even though the Roman Catholic Church is not part of the World Council of Churches, she says there has been increased cooperation since the 1960s. “I see us (the WCC) working together in peace building—peace building in the Korean Peninsula, in Palestine, in Syria, in Iraq, in Nigeria, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in South Sudan and in Colombia; and now I see us uniting around Nicaragua and the Ukraine.

“With the United Church of Canada we are working very closely with member churches in the Korean Peninsula and the Middle East.”

Phiri says the WCC is engaged in work around economic justice and “a new global financial architecture.”

“We are always on the side of the poor and the marginalized,” says Phiri. “We are united to protect the environment,” she adds, “as our existence is linked with the earth.”

Phiri is also responsible for programs related to human sexuality.  She freely admits that some member churches of the WCC continue to see homosexuality as a sin. “In the WCC we don’t promote any position, but we create space for conversation and the conversation is theologically informed. We seek to uphold the vision of a God who does not exclude anyone,” says Phiri.

Phiri is part of the global ecumenical delegation attending the United Church's 43rd General Council.