Faith Today columnist James Beverley was in Toronto for a week-long gathering of well over 6,000 religious leaders called The Parliament of the World’s Religions. In his initial report, he considers how a tone of harmony prevailed even as participants considered contentious problems such as religious bigotry and genocide.
By James A. Beverley
Toronto, arguably the most diverse city in the world, was recently host to the seventh Parliament of the World’s Religions. The first such parliament dates to Chicago in 1893. After a century delay, parliaments were held again in Chicago in 1993, Cape Town (1999), Barcelona (2004), Melbourne (2009), Salt Lake City (2015) and recently in the largest city in Canada.
The Toronto gathering, Nov. 1-7, 2018, drew more than six thousand registrants from all corners of the globe. Media reports said attendees came from more than two hundred different religious or spiritual traditions. As one would expect, there were devotees from the largest religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism). But other smaller traditions were also represented, including African Traditional, Baha’i, Indigenous, Pagan and Zoroastrian. The Toronto Parliament also hosted relatively new religions including Aumism (France), Band of Light (UK), CaoDai (Vietnam), Eckankar (USA) and Scientology (USA).
The Parliament illustrated its pluralist ethos by giving space to atheist humanists, including most notably Gretta Vosper, the United Church of Canada pastor who regained her ministerial license recently despite her atheism. Evangelical Christians had a minimal presence at the week-long gathering, although Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, was a featured plenary speaker.
Despite the wide diversity in spiritualities a tone of harmony prevailed, as one would hope given the theme was “The Promise of Inclusion, the Power of Love: Pursuing Global Understanding, Reconciliation, and Change.” John Longhurst of The Winnipeg Free Press reported on his “sense of wonder and amazement so many people from so many places and so many religions could all gather peacefully in the same place — and no arguments about who was right or wrong broke out?”
The pervasive tranquility did not mean participants were naïve about the dark side of religion. In fact, there were frequent references to the killings at The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that happened just days earlier. One of the sessions dealt with religious extremism in northeastern Nigeria, two others exposed white supremacy, and both anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-Semitism were addressed. Even the threat of nuclear war was examined. Beyond this, participants probed the genocide against the Yazidi people of Iraq and neighbouring countries as well as the systemic brutalization of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. The World Sikh Organization held a vigil at the Parliament on the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in India.
Earlier Parliaments often got noticed because of various religious superstars. At the first Chicago assembly the hero was Hindu leader Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902). At his Parliament speech his opening words “Sisters and brothers of America” earned him a two-minute standing ovation. A century later (Chicago 1993) His Holiness the Dalai Lama was idolized – and again when he made an appearance at the Barcelona assembly in 2004 and in Melbourne in 2009 (where U.S. president Jimmy Carter was also a major presence). Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela were the featured speakers at Cape Town in 1999.
Both at the Salt Lake City (2015) and Toronto parliaments there were no similar spiritual luminaries who would be known to everyone. The highest profiles in Toronto belonged to Kim Campbell, former prime minister of Canada, and retired Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, most famously known for his work as commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda in 1993 and 1994. Both Campbell and Dallaire said that religion provides a foundation for the future but lamented the pervasiveness of secularism.
Ironically, there were very few news reports in the mainstream media on the Toronto parliament.
Subscribe to Faith Today to read a full multi-page report on the Toronto event, coming in our Jan/Feb 2019 issue.
James Beverley is the Religion Watch columnist for Faith Today. He was at the Toronto Parliament and also attended the 1993 Parliament in Chicago and the 1999 Parliament in Cape Town.