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Parliament of World Religions

A global event comes to Canada

This November, the world’s largest interfaith event, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, comes to Toronto. The seven-day event will bring nearly 10,000 attendees with hundreds of talks and seminars, ritual performances and dances, and globally renowned speakers.

Open to the public, the Parliament attracts people from every faith and no faith to learn about one another and to think about how to further justice. The first Parliament in 1893 in Chicago marked an increasingly interconnected planet. Revived in 1993, the Parliament now occurs every four to five years to foster understanding, promote peace and bring spiritual people together to work towards a better future. 

One anticipated speaker is Mariatu Kamara. At age 12, during Sierra Leone’s civil war, guerrillas attacked Kamara’s village and killed her family. She was raped, tortured and then her tormentors cut off her hands. Alone, bleeding and handless, Mariatu managed to struggle to find help and medical care. One final trauma came when her son, conceived from the rape, died before his first birthday. 

Mariatu has, heroically, not only survived but created a vibrant life. She lives in Toronto, studies at university, has published a book, and worked with Free the Children and UNICEF. Her voice, courage and physical body testify to the human spirit. Attendees will surely long remember this brave Muslim woman.

Fight injustice together
Another speaker I eagerly await is Payam Akhavan. Akhavan’s family fled the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran after relatives were killed for their Bahá’í faith. Akhavan’s life was changed by a peer, a fellow Iranian teenage Bahá’í named Mona. 

When asked to write a school essay on religious freedom, Mona, aged 16, refused to praise the regime as expected, instead highlighting their hypocrisy and brutality. At night, authorities raided her home and arrested her. She was tortured for months and then executed. Mona’s last act: she defiantly smiled at the hangman. 

Akhavan says this event shattered him. He devoted his life to fighting injustice, becoming the United Nation’s youngest ever prosecutor of war crimes, and now an international expert on genocide who advises in conflict arenas including the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Syria. In his 2017 Massey Lectures, Akhavan charged that seeing helping others as a burden or charity is a failure to love.

Other compelling speakers include Canadian author Margaret Atwood, British writer Karen Armstrong and the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize winners, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Alongside the speaking sessions are ritual performances, sacred dance and chant. Every Parliament has a sacred music evening, featuring global talents from each faith community. The 2015 event was the most beautiful evening of music (and sacred dance) that I have witnessed. Another religious practice at every Parliament is the free lunches. For Sikhs, feeding people is a religious duty (sewa or service). Hence they provide thousands of free langar meals every day, funded by Sikh benefactors while Sikh volunteers from many countries come to cook, serve and clean. 

Learn from each other
The Parliament also offers a fascinating dive into human diversity. I recall entering the foyer on opening day in 2015, amazed by what I encountered: Tibetan monks making a sand mandala that would take days; an indoor Jain temple with a monk speaking with anyone who would sit with him; and surrounding me, an incredibly diverse mix of attendees, some wearing saffron robes, veils, turbans, elaborate face paint and/or dreadlocks. I have never seen such a gathering and knew immediately there was much here to learn. 

The Parliament also features a large booths display where you learn about other traditions or buy items (books, beads and ritual items). 

The Parliament aims to promote positive change, and each day focuses on a different theme:

  • Day 1 examines Indigenous issues. Appropriately planned by an Indigenous Working Group, the lineup includes innumerable Indigenous speakers from Canada and beyond.
  • Day 2 focuses on Women and Girls. One highlight will be Sakena Yacoobi, recipient of many awards for her dangerous work in supporting girls’ education in Afghanistan. Defying the Taliban, her organization supported 80 underground schools and her learning institute now provides teacher training to women, promotes education, and provides health education to women and children.
  • Day 3 addresses our many environmental challenges.
  • Day 4 looks at Justice, including a keynote talk from award winner Njeri Kabeberi, Greenpeace Africa’s executive director, on her efforts to support women’s rights in Kenya. 
  • Day 5 examines Hate, Justice and War. 

The final morning addresses the 2018 theme of The Promise of Inclusion, the Power of Love

The Parliament of World Religions offers a rare and exciting opportunity to learn from inspiring and knowledgeable leaders, to witness dance and ritual, and to meet diverse neighbours over your langar meal. I hope to see you there. 

  • Brian is Director of the Encounter World Religions Centre and a PhD student in religion & politics at UToronto.

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