Interfaith relations in the post-9/11 world are examined in Barcelona

At perhaps the largest interfaith gathering ever held, the 2004 Parliament of the World’s Religions considers the richness of diversity and the "Pathways to Peace."

BARCELONA, Spain — Without doubt, there was a distinct shadow over the 2004 Parliament of the World’s Religions — a major interfaith gathering held here in July 2004.

The shadow was cast by the growing concern worldwide about religiously inspired terrorism and violence, as exemplified by the 11 September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York.

In response, organizers, presenters, and participants of the Parliament sought to highlight the possibilities for peace and reconciliation among the religions — hoping to shine a light into the darkness.

Taking the theme "Pathways to Peace," the Parliament was attended by nearly 9,000 people from more than 75 countries — making it one of the largest interreligious meetings in history. Participants were mostly lay people, from every major world religion. Many sects and sub-groups were also represented.

In more than 400 workshops, panel discussions, and plenary sessions, participants addressed a wide range of issues relating to peace and interfaith understanding.

"We are resolved to sustain long-term intercultural and interfaith understanding and cooperation," said Federico Mayor Zaragoza, former director-general of UNESCO and president of the Peace Culture Foundation of Spain, in the Parliament’s closing plenary. "Diversity is not a threat. It is our richness to be united."

Organizers of the Parliament said the peaceful and all-embracing nature of the event itself stands as a model for interreligious cooperation in the post-9/11 world.

"Just holding a Parliament of this size and scope, with this kind of diversity, after September 11th, portrays a different image of religion than we have tended to see in the newspapers for the last few years," said Dirk Ficca, executive director of the Chicago-based Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions (CPWR), which organized the Parliament. "So I think that is significant."

Held 7-13 July, the 2004 Parliament was designed to build on previous Parliaments in 1999 in Cape Town, South Africa, and in 1993 in Chicago — all of which have sought to promote dialogue and cooperation among the world’s religions. All three modern-day Parliaments trace their lineage to the historic 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, also held in Chicago, which is widely considered the dawning place of the modern worldwide interreligious movement.

The 2004 Parliament, which was also sponsored by the UNESCO Centre of Catalonia and Forum Barcelona 2004, specifically sought to encourage religious groups worldwide to make concrete commitments to have "faith transform the world" by focusing on four specific issues areas: creating access to clean water, eliminating international debt in poor countries, supporting refugees worldwide, and overcoming religiously motivated violence.

The conference program was also designed to increase the discussion within each religious group about the need for religious pluralism, by setting aside a number of program slots for "intra-religious" dialogue.

"Most religious communities have a kind of internal rationale for who they are, and how they relate to each other," said Dr. Ficca, explaining that one goal of the Parliament was to get religious groups talking internally. "We feel one key to the interreligious movement is the intra-religious conversation. So we set this as a major category for our programs."

Focus on dialogue

Nevertheless, interreligious dialogue remained the focus of the Parliament. And many speakers made specific references to, or even focused on, the September 11 event and the unfolding tension over religious violence since that time.

In one well-attended session entitled "The Battle for God," author and theologian Karen Armstrong said she believed that religious fundamentalists from all traditions are essentially rebelling against the apparent triumph of the modernist, secular view of the world.

"Every single fundamentalist movement that I have studied is rooted in a profound fear — whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim — that modern secular society wants to wipe out religion," said Ms. Armstrong, who is the author of A History of God, among other works.

This fear of modernity has led fundamentalists to distort the religious traditions they are trying to preserve, said Ms. Armstrong. "They downplay those passages [in their holy writings] that speak of tolerance and compassion and respect for the rights of others….This was clear even before September 11."

At a workshop entitled "The Responsibility of the Global Muslim Community in the Post 9/11 World," a panel of prominent Muslims sought to analyze and address how the Islamic world can change both its own attitudes and the perception of others in the context of interfaith understanding.

"Now there are serious questions about Islam, about the Quran, about the Prophet Muhammad, about jihad, about violence," said Zahid Bukhari of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. "And they don’t need the type of answer that ‘Islam means peace’ and ‘There are five pillars.’ There need to be serious answers from Islamic leaders and Islamic scholars."

William Lesher, Chair of the CWPR, said the 9/11 event and broad concerns about religious violence raised the profile of the Parliament and the interfaith movement in general. He said, for example, the Barcelona event was the first to have a significant degree of involvement with the international business community.

The Ford Motor Company, he noted, sponsored a workshop about a company-supported interfaith network aimed at reducing religious tensions on the factory floor. As well, Iberdrola, Spain’s second-largest power company, is the first corporate entity to give money to support a Parliament, said Rev. Lesher.

"Four or five years ago, you could not talk to a corporation about funding an interreligous event," said Rev. Lesher. "But there is a growing awareness in the international corporate world that they’ve got interreligious issues in their workforce."

Chris Hamilton, a professor of comparative politics and world religion at Washburn University, USA, said the Parliament reflected a trend towards "horizontal" integration among the peoples of the world, who often now bypass traditional "vertical" institutions — including churches — to promote global change.

"You have lay people who are deciding on their own that other religions are sources of meaning and possible allies in the achievement of various world goals, like peace," said Professor Hamilton, who is a Bahá'í. "This Parliament is really about a growing, significant, transnational non-governmental movement, like the environmental movement, that may well mark a change in the fate of the planet."

Bahá'í Participation

For its part, the Bahá'í International Community and its national affiliate, the Bahá'í community of Spain, offered a number of panel discussions, presentations, and activities in support of the Parliament and its theme of peace.

More than 100 Bahá'ís attended the Parliament, coming from Andorra, Botswana, Canada, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

"The goal for Bahá'ís at the Parliament is to help further understanding among the different religions," said Miguel Gil, who represented the Bahá'í community of Spain at the Parliament. "We want to help smooth the misunderstandings that divide the religions and to address issues of common concern."

Moreover, many of the Bahá'ís at the Parliament were acting not so much as representatives of the Bahá'í Faith, but rather as representatives of various interfaith and/or academic organizations in which they have become prominent. Some, in fact, had their way paid in full or part by sponsoring organizations.

Lally Lucretia Warren of Botswana, who is a Bahá'í and also a member of the Parliament’s international advisory committee, said she believes Bahá'ís have been effective in promoting interreligous dialogue in part because their belief system encompasses all of the world’s major religions.

She noted that Bahá'ís believe in the divine missions of Christ, Muhammad, Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, and Zoroaster, among others, in addition to Bahá’u’lláh.

"We are accepting of other people’s religions because we truly believe in the truths of these other religions," said Ms. Warren, whose journey to the Parliament was largely sponsored by the Lutheran World Federation, in part because of her participation in the Continuation Committee of Interfaith Action for Peace in Africa, which was initiated by the Lutherans.

Moojan Momen, a Bahá'í scholar from the United Kingdom, gave a talk on "The Bahá'í Theological Basis of Interreligious Dialogue." The Bahá'í belief system defuses those elements of religion that tend to produce conflict, said Dr. Momen.

"In Bahá'í theology, God is unknowable and unknown," said Dr. Momen, who has written numerous books on religion. "So all of these different views that religions have of the Ultimate Reality are seen as limited viewpoints. They are all to some extent correct. And they are all to some extent incorrect. So in effect, what the Bahá'í Faith does is remove the whole question of ‘What is God?’ and to move to a place where individuals are able to create their own understanding.

"This allows us to move from doctrinal issues, where religions tend to disagree, to more practical issues, like the area of ethics, where, in fact, religions are in broad agreement," said Dr. Momen. "All religions, for example, have some form of the Golden Rule, all say we should detach ourselves from the material world, and all stress attributes of love, brotherhood and justice."