More than 8,500 people gathered at the Metro Convention Centre in downtown Toronto for the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions, held from November 1-7. The Parliament is one of the largest interfaith gatherings in the world, which has taken place in the past in Chicago (1893, 1993), Cape Town (1999), Barcelona (2004), Melbourne (2009), and Salt Lake City (2015).
Before the Parliament formally opened, more than 50 people from around the world attended an informal reception hosted by the Local Spiritual Assembly at the Toronto Baha’i Centre. Over the course of the Parliament, hundreds of people visited a dedicated “faith space” to participate in conversations about the Baha’i Faith
Attendees at the Parliament had the opportunity to attend a range of keynote and breakout sessions offered by Baha’is, many of which touched on the conference themes of inclusion, reconciliation, and social change. More than 60 presentations were offered by Baha’is, often in collaboration with others.
One session was on “Navigating the New Religious Pluralism,” focused on the efforts of the Canadian Interfaith Conversation (CIC) to promote fresh approaches to public discourse in Canada. Dr. Geoffrey Cameron, Director of Public Affairs for the Baha’i Community of Canada, joined other members of the Executive Committee of the CIC to share what the group has been learning from its research, youth engagement, and public policy initiatives. One of these initiatives is a series of conferences called, Our Whole Society, which aim to promote a more robust dialogue about the role of religion in Canadian public discourse.
The work of the Canadian Interfaith Conversation was also profiled in a session on its “New Generation Interfaith Initiative,” chaired by a Baha’i participant, Laura Friedmann. The panel examined how young people are pioneering new approaches to interfaith cooperation and dialogue.
“We find that there is often a false choice presented in interfaith work: whether to pursue unity, or to learn about each others’ differences,” said Cameron. “The truth is that the more we strive to understand ‘the other,’ the more that draws us together. Unity is a natural outcome of learning about one another, become more familiar with the teachings of our traditions, and finding ways to work together.”
Other insights were brought to light in a workshop on “The Moral Empowerment of Youth from Diverse Backgrounds,” led by Eric Farr, Hoda Farahmandpour, and Ashraf Rushdy, a project officer with the Office of Public Affairs of the Baha’i Community of Canada. The workshop aimed at drawing insights from the experience of the Baha’i community working with youth and adolescents across Canada, often in diverse urban settings. “If we had nothing at all in common our efforts at embracing diversity would be superficial,” said Farahmandpour. “We must seek to strengthen those powers and potentialities that are common to all - that are because we are first and foremost human beings."
This theme was explored in another session, co-sponsored by the Baha’i community’s Office of Public Affairs, on the theme of Religion, Citizenship, and Belonging. Saphira Rameshfar, a Baha’i representative to the United Nations, described how the Baha’i International Community has worked to advance a discourse on gender equality at the UN by building bridges between secular feminists, conservative religious actors, and men and boys. “One of the goals was to shift the dominant narrative at the United Nations, from one that saw religion as being oppressive to women to one where religion could be recognized as a source of empowerment and inspiration for women to contribute to the betterment of the world, and service to humanity,” Rameshfar said.
“Baha’is look to the interfaith movement as a way in which the world’s religions are drawing closer together,” said Cameron. “At the core of the Baha’i teachings is the principle that God is one, and beyond the diversity of human interpretation, religion is also one. Many presentations at the Parliament offered an occasion to see this principle in practice.”
Reflecting on the state of interfaith activities, Farr added, “what we need is to develop a new discourse on religion, that carries new narratives and new collective practices that understand religion not simply as a slate of discrete traditions from different periods and parts of the world, but as a single evolving narrative of the spiritual heritage of all of humanity."
*This article is the second in a three-part series on the Parliament of the World's Religions held in Toronto, 2018. Read the first and third articles here: 1) Baha’is prepare for the Parliament of the World’s Religions ; 3) Films for social change featured at Parliament of the World’s Religions