Women and environment are highlighted at 2009 Parliament of the World's Religions

In Brief: 
  • Every five years, the Parliament of the World's Religions is a snapshot of of the interfaith movement
  • The 2009 Parliament drew 5,000 people from 80 countries and 220 religious traditions
  • The over-arching theme was about interreligious tolerance and peace, with an emerging emphasis this year on women and the environment

MELBOURNE, Australia - As the largest regular global interfaith gathering, the Parliament of the World's Religions offers a chance every five years to assess new directions and crosscurrents within the interfaith movement.

Among the trends that stood out at the 2009 Parliament was the increasing role of women in interreligious activities, greater concern for environmental issues, and new efforts to involve youth and others in concrete action at the local level.


The trend towards the greater involvement of women was reflected in the fact that some 60 percent of the 5,000 participants who gathered here in December were female - as were about 40 percent of the speakers.

The program featured a variety of presentations on topics like "Breaking Through Patriarchy: New Visions for Women of Faith" and "Taking Our Place in the Interreligious Movement: Women in Society, Peacemaking, and Interfaith Dialogue."

"There is an increased visibility of women at the parliament and we are very happy about that," said Dirk Ficca, director of the Chicago-based organization that puts the event together every five years.

The Parliament of the World's Religions is almost certainly the largest regular interfaith gathering. The 2009 parliament in Melbourne followed previous events in Barcelona, Spain (2004); Cape Town, South Africa (1999), and Chicago, United States (1993).

More than 5,000 people from 80 countries, representing more than 220 religious traditions, attended the 2009 event, which featured more than 650 programs and 1,300 speakers and performers. Prominent speakers included the Dalai Lama and theologian Hans Kung.

The Bahá'í International Community was represented by some 70 people at all levels. They ranged from youth volunteers to Lucretia (Lally) Warren of Botswana, who was a plenary speaker and a founding member of Interfaith Action for Peace in Africa (IAPA). At the parliament, Ms. Warren and several colleagues received the Carus Award, which recognizes "outstanding contributions to the interreligious movement."

The origins of the parliament lie with the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago. That gathering is widely seen as the dawning place of the modern worldwide interreligious movement.

As with past parliaments, the overarching theme focused on interreligious tolerance and peace.

"We need constant effort to bring closer all religious traditions, and then we will have a more effective role to bring compassion to this planet," said the Dalai Lama.

The focus on religious tolerance and its corollary, religious freedom, was emphasized throughout the program.

But many agreed that the new element at the 2009 parliament was the increased emphasis on the role of women in the interfaith movement - and in religious leadership generally.

"Three things stood out for me at the parliament," said Katherine Marshall, the executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue. "They were a great interest in the action on poverty, and the tremendous energy behind the gender issue and climate change."

The strong presence of women at the parliament was evident from the opening ceremony, where Wurundjeri Aboriginal elder Professor Joy Murphy Wandin welcomed participants. Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning, a women-led grassroots NGO in Afghanistan, was a keynote speaker.

Women were active in most sessions and addressed the major themes of the parliament: gender equality, climate change, the rights of indigenous peoples, the global economy, and poverty.

Benedictine nun Joan Chittister spoke about the need for men to stand up for equality. "When you eliminate half of the human race from the participation in solutions that affect the entire human race you leave a society that is seeing with one eye, hearing with one ear, thinking with one half of the human brain - and it shows," said Sister Chittister.

Arini Beaumaris, secretary of the Bahá'í community of Australia, also discussed the importance of women's leadership in religious affairs.

"We believe we will not achieve the peace and tranquillity of the world until we have equality of men and women," said Ms. Beaumaris during a panel discussion titled "East and West: Spirituality and Women's Leadership in Different Religious Perspectives."

A path to leadership roles for women was outlined in a session titled "Experience the Women's Interfaith Network" hosted by members of the Sydney-based Women's Interfaith Network (WIN), whose membership includes women from virtually every major faith tradition.

The organization, which promotes harmony and understanding among the followers of all religions, sought to encourage women to set up similar groups in other places.

Josie Lacey of Sydney's Jewish community said that prior to the formation of WIN, interfaith dialogue in Australia's biggest city was largely conducted by male religious leaders.

"Today WIN members are often invited to provide a female voice alongside male leaders at interfaith gatherings," said Ms. Lacey. "WIN provides an opportunity for women to come together and develop their own mode of dialogue."

Environment a theme

There was also a new emphasis on environmental issues. The program featured many presentations on the environment - and specifically on climate change. That subject drew special attention because of the parliament's coincidence with the UN Climate Change Conference, held in Copenhagen, also in early December.

"There were many panels on religion and ecology," said Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-founder of the  Forum on Religion and Ecology, writing in the group's newsletter.

"Moreover, the climate change meeting in Copenhagen loomed large at the parliament. Some people attended both meetings, and numerous messages were sent to the negotiators in Denmark urging climate justice to be part of the resolutions," Dr. Tucker wrote.

The role of youth

Another theme evident at the parliament was the increased involvement of young people in various grassroots efforts to promote religious tolerance.

At a session titled "The After Party-Legacy and Young People," several participants said that local multi-faith service projects are an especially effective way to involve young people.

Jem Jebbia, a Mahayana Buddhist from the United States, described the "Faiths Act" work of the Tony Blair Foundation, which includes on its agenda multi-faith cooperation by young people in the fight against malaria.

Erin Williams, a staff member of the Interfaith Youth Core, based in Chicago, said her organization found that working together on multi-faith service projects - even before attempts at dialogue - helped to unite the participants, leading to better exchanges on faith issues.

"Our basic goal is to promote religious pluralism," said Ms. Williams. "We do a service project and then we have dialogue - the service project brings it all together."

- By Michael Day