In South Africa, the world's religions gather for dialogue and action

Building on the ethical framework established at the1993 Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago, the 1999 Parliament seeks to translate interreligious dialogue into joint intercommunal activities.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa - Without doubt, one of the highlights for religious leaders gathered here for the 1999 Parliament of the World's Religions was a speech by a secular political leader: former South African President Nelson Mandela.

Addressing the thousands of representatives gathered from the world's major faith groups, the 81-year-old former political prisoner said that religious institutions played a major role in bringing about the end of apartheid in South Africa.

"Without the Church and religious institutions, I would never be here today," said President Mandela, explaining that it was Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish religious groups that were instrumental in providing him and other young blacks with an education - and later in giving comfort to political prisoners and their families.

"I appreciate the importance of religion," he said on 5 December 1999. "You have to have been in a South African jail under apartheid where you could see the cruelty of human beings to each other in its naked form. Again, religious institutions and their leaders gave us hope that one day we could return."

President Mandela went on to say that "religion will have a crucial role to play in guiding and inspiring humanity to meet the enormous challenges we face" in the next century.

In a few short lines, President Mandela summed up one of the major themes of this gathering: that religions, especially when they work together, can and must play a critical role in solving the problems humanity faces.

Held here 1-8 December 1999, the Parliament drew more than 7,000 participants from some 90 countries. Coming six years after the last Parliament, held in Chicago in 1993 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the famous 1893 World's Parliament of Religions, the South African event offered a glimpse of some of the current directions in the worldwide interfaith movement - which by all accounts is growing and gaining strength and acceptance.

"We're convinced that the international interreligious movement is one of the most important features of the modern world," said Jim Kenney, international director of the Council for the Parliament of the World's Religions (CPWR), co-sponsor of the event, along with the Parliament of the World's Religions, South Africa (PWRSA).

"Our motivation in holding the Parliament comes from the fact that the world is shrinking and that diversity is more and more apparent," said Mr. Kenney. "Twenty years ago, a Westerner might never have encountered a Buddhist or a Bahá'í or a Muslim or a Hindu. Now, in many places, the followers of all of these traditions live adjacent to each other."

Kenney said that the Parliament was intended not only to increase and improve the dialogue among faith groups but to take them to the next level of involvement: joint common actions.

To this end, the Parliament unveiled two new efforts: a major interfaith consensus document, "A Call to Our Guiding Institutions," and a listing of interreligious projects, announced under the heading of "Gifts of Service to the World."

The "Call" offers a blueprint for religious and secular partnership in addressing global challenges in the new millennium.

"We find ourselves at a moment when people everywhere are coming to recognize that the world is a global village," says the Call, which touches on a wide range of issues, from sustainable development to global governance, from Third World debt relief to media ethics.

"Unique to this moment is the possibility of a new level of creative engagement between the institutions of religion and spirituality and the other powerful institutions that influence the character and course of human society," the Call continues. "What is needed now is a persuasive invitation to our guiding institutions to build new, reliable, and more imaginative partnerships toward the shaping of a better world."

The listing of "Gifts of Service" represents the beginning of such "joint common actions" in the field of interreligious and religious/secular cooperation. Presented to the Parliament in the form of a booklet, it details some 250 projects that reflect a "commitment to interreligious convergence."

"To me, this is very exciting - that we are starting to see common actions and cooperative projects across religions," said Howard Sulkin, chairman of the CPWR. "In the past, that was heard of much less."

The Parliament opened with a colorful procession of religious leaders and believers through the streets of Cape Town. However, as several thousand African indigenous religionists, Bahá'ís, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Zoroastrians and others wound their way through this diverse city, they were at times heckled by fundamentalist Muslim and Christian groups that opposed the Parliament - a reflection of the challenges that surround interfaith dialogue.

Protests met with tolerance

Yet the protests were met largely with smiles of tolerance. "The examples of protest were minimal compared to the overall sense of unity that pervaded the eight days," said Louise Todd Cope, founder of Cloak the Earth, a USA-based interfaith organization.

The daily program of the Parliament began with morning prayers and meditations, followed by numerous workshops and talks, and, in the evening, plenary sessions and artistic performances. Scholars, activists and religious leaders addressed topics ranging from the basic teachings of world religions to an exploration of faith-inspired solutions to world problems.

"Much time and energy was devoted to discussing practical problems such as poverty and discrimination, social injustice and the stifling of ancient traditions, environmental pollution and global ethics, economic exploitation and health issues," said Varadaraja V. Raman, Professor Emeritus of Physics and Humanities at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the USA and a representative of the Zygon Center for Science and Religion. "Thus, for example, in one session a speaker expounded on the human rights violation suffered by millions of untouchables in India, while in another, an eminent scholar interviewed some Native American elders on how their religions and cultures have been marginalized in modern America."

Viewed from a distance, the crowd of participants offered an ocean of color. Hindus adorned in saffron robes sat with Christian priests dressed in black robes with white collars. Moslem clerics attired in all-white shirts and trousers walked with Buddhists draped only in yellow cotton. Women of all colors dressed in brightly colored silk saris chatted with men and women dressed in business suits. Always present were Africans, often wearing traditional clothing.

During the final three days, an Assembly of some 400 religious and spiritual leaders gathered for consultations and to make further commitments to joint common action. Included in the Assembly meeting were secular leaders from business, agriculture, academia, the media and international organizations, such as the World Bank.

The closing ceremony featured a short speech by the Dalai Lama, leader of the Tibetan Buddhists. He said he was encouraged that so many faiths could convene and honor each other's religions and expressed the hope that such meetings would result in concrete social action.

Long heritage

The 1999 Parliament builds on the heritage of the first World's Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893, which brought together several hundred scholars, theologians and religious leaders, including representatives of Eastern religions. It is widely viewed as the dawn of interfaith dialogue.

The Council for the Parliament of the World's Religions was established after a highly successful 1993 centenary of that event, called the Parliament of the World's Religions, drew more than 10,000 participants to Chicago. Among the major products of the 1993 Parliament was a document called "Towards a Global Ethic," a statement of global ethics as defined by the world's major religions.

Council officials said they chose South Africa for the 1999 Parliament because of the role that religion and spirituality played in the struggle against apartheid. "We believe that there is a unique role that religion and spirituality plays in social transformation," said Dirk Ficca, executive director of the Council. "It provides resources for the people to get a clear vision of where they might go, and an outline of the most peaceful and just way to get there."

Once the decision was made to hold the 1999 Parliament in South Africa, much of the planning and implementation for the event was turned over to the Parliament of the World's Religions, South Africa, an autonomous interfaith organization. "The South African interreligious community, humble as it was, rose to the immense task of playing host to the Parliament," said Amy Seidel Marks, co-chair of the PWRSA and a member of the South African Bahá'í community. "In truth, it can be said that the 1999 Parliament of the World's Religions was achieved on the interreligious foundations built by the those who were key players in the struggle against apartheid."

For many participants, being together and engaging in the sort of dialogue that leads to greater tolerance and understanding was the most important part of the event.

"All religions have some common principles," said S. L. Gandhi, a Jain leader from India. "From that point of view, we can say that there is a thread of oneness that unites and binds all religions together. But each religious belief is a distinct entity so the very talk of unity arouses protests among orthodox groups. We must emphasize religious and spiritual harmony and cooperation instead of unity because love is a commonly preached eternal value."

Bahá'í participation

More than 100 Bahá'ís attended the Parliament and many were deeply involved in its organization and operation. Dr. Marks, the South African co-chair, is Bahá'í, for example, and some 11 Bahá'ís from around the world represented the Faith at the assembly.

The Bahá'í community of South Africa, which is established here in more than 300 communities, issued a statement to the Parliament, urging the world's peoples "to rise above our petty differences of national and religious rivalries and work constructively and enthusiastically to build new order in the world where each and all share in the prosperity of the whole and where none bear the yoke of extreme poverty nor the humiliation of subjugation."

"To realize this noble objective requires fundamental changes in both human consciousness and human behavior. And throughout the history of civilization, religion has demonstrated a unique power to tap the roots of human motivation and induce the changes required," the statement said.

-- with reporting from South Africa by Suzanne Bamford and Muhtadia Rice.

To read the text of "A Call to Our Guiding Institutions," go to the Council for the Parliament of the World's Religions site at