Parliament shows ecumenical goodwill

Parliament shows ecumenical goodwill

In an atmosphere of ecumenical goodwill almost 6,000 delegates representing 228 faiths convened on the Melbourne Exhibition Centre from December 3 to 9. These delegates engaged in inter-religious dialogue over some of the world’s biggest issues with the aim of increasing understanding and finding ways to engage in them together.

Over six days, they heard some 800 speakers and took part in over 700 individual lectures, panels and workshops.

It was an event steeped in a rich history. The world’s largest inter-religious gathering, the Parliament of the World’s Religions was first held in Chicago in 1893. The event was recognised as the first formal meeting of the religious East and West. After a 100 year gap, subsequent Parliaments were held every five years from 1993, in Chicago, Cape Town, Barcelona, and Monterrey.

One of the highlights of the 1893 Parliament was the presence of Hindu scholar Swami Vivekananda, who, while not initially invited, proved so popular that the organisers scheduled him to appear as the last speaker each day.

“Sectarianism, bigotry and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth,” Swami Vivekananda said in his first speech. “They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often with human blood, destroyed civilisation and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for those horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now.”

Speaking to Melbourne’’ The Age 112 years later, chairman of the board for the 2009 Parliament Gary Bouma stressed the need for interfaith dialogue to quell the kind of sectarian destruction described by Swami Vivekananda.

“Interfaith is terribly important because religious conflict has great capacity to radically disturb peace in the world,” he said.

“There’s a battle for hearts and minds and, unless those who argue for compassion and justice get their fingers out and do more, we could all be in a bad way because those on the negative side of the equation seem to have a lot of motivational energy to make the world a worse place.”

World Vision Australia CEO the Rev. Tim Costello echoed these sentiments in a round table discussion filmed for the ABC’s religious affairs program Compass.

“There can be no peace without religious peace. It comes as a surprise to most Australians, we’re pretty secular, to actually realise that most of the rest of the world is religious,” he said.

“That religious world view is fundamental to dealing with issues of justice, issues of the environment.”

With the theme “Make a World of Difference: Heal the Earth” the Melbourne Parliament was devoted to addressing such issues. The programs followed seven topics: healing the earth, reconciling with Indigenous peoples, overcoming poverty in a patriarchal world, creating social cohesion, sharing wisdom in the search of inner peace, securing food and water for all and building peace in the pursuit of justice.

As the event coincided with the start of the United Nations Summit on Climate Change in Copenhagen, a particular focus on environmental issues was clear. There were some thirty five sessions devoted to this topic. Delegates signed a petition calling on world leaders to commit to a binding deal and a scroll was present for delegates to write messages of encouragement to those at Copenhagen. At the conference’s end, delegates posed for a photo with a banner reading “Protect the Only Earth We Have”.

“This Parliament is on the same page as far as the earth as a sacred system,” Mr Costello told Compass.

“I’m personally hoping that at Copenhagen the leaders can be as generous to the environment we have been for merchant bankers.”

The Parliament’s closing ceremony featured keynote speaker His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama. The Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader spoke of the need for a secularism that was not anti-religious, but gave respect for those of all religious traditions, including none at all. He called on Parliament delegates to use the event as a springboard for inter-religious action, lest it be seen as a simply “social” occasion.

The closing ceremony also served for outgoing Chair of the Parliament the Rev. Dr William Lesher to introduce his successor, Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid of Chicago. Mr Mujahid used the occasion to launch PeaceNext, a social networking tool aimed at facilitating inter-religious action post-Parliament.

Jonathan Foye is a freelance journalist and Chaplaincy Associate at the University of Western Sydney. PeaceNext can be accessed at


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