A Marketplace of Faiths Gathers: Parliament of World Religions Discusses Climate Change, Indigenous Rights, Much More

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MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA * Drawing young and old, including students, social and political activists, and religious leaders from around the world, the Parliament of the World's Religions met here from Dec. 3-9 at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Center. The event was at times hopeful and prayerful and drew thousands to discuss a host of is-: sues, such as climate change, indigenous rights, and the West's relationship with Islam.

The gathering sometimes had the feeling of an open-air market. One pays a general admission fee and then chooses which and however many sessions one wants to attend. Native American leaders mingled with rabbis from Israel; Vietnamese Buddhist monks with Muslim scholars; Hindu philosophers with representatives of Christian denominations. This uncommon event happens every five years.

The purpose was to foster understanding and harmony among the world's spiritual and religious traditions.

In officially naming the event the "Parliament of the World's Religions" --not the "Parliament of World Religions"--organizers tried not to exclude any religious traditions that are ethnic, national or local in scope. More than 200 religions (however one defines that term) were represented in the more than 600 sessions.

The days were structured under five headings:

* Spiritual observances were held first thing each morning. Delegates had the opportunity to attend a prayer service, a meditation session, an awakening experience, a sacred dance celebration, or some other ritual practice of a particular tradition. More often than not the majority of those Present were not adherents of the tradition but were there to encounter and learn from them.

* Intrareligious sessions were opportunities to learn more about specific traditions, their principles, teachings and practices. It was here that one could be exposed to the Big Mind Big Heart process developed by U.S. Zen master Genpo Roshi; or to the U.S. Episcopal church's anti-racism efforts; or to the Haudenosaunee prophecy of the tribal nations of the United States; or to the Jain religion's Ahimsa doctrine; or to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's vision of the global family.

* At interreligious sessions, people of different religions met to explore issues confronting religions in general and also innovative methodologies for interreligious encounters. It was during these sessions that issues of ecology and climate change were explored interreligiously, as were the challenges posed by migration and globalization, and the problems confronting gays and lesbians, youth, and religious minorities.

* Engagement sessions featured a wide variety of programs focusing on capacity building and creative, collaborative approaches to challenges. Among topics addressed were the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Islam and the West; the dynamics of strangers becoming neighbors; the works of the U.K.-based International Association for Religious, Freedom; the process of educating religious leaders for a multireligious world; and case studies of religion, conflict and peace-building in various parts of the world. …