Parliament of the World's Religions seeks understanding and action
Anila Ali traces her interest in the interfaith movement to scripture.
"God says in the Koran to Muslims," she says, "I have created you into tribes—different tribes—so that you may get to know each other."
Ali says getting to know other religions needs to go beyond the superficial, which is why she left her job as a public school teacher in Southern California and is now president of the American Muslim and Multifaith Women's Empowerment Council.
She says not enough people hear the real story of Islam, which leaves them relying on stereotypes rather than real knowledge.
"Islam came at a point in Arabia where girls were being buried alive," she says. "Islam came to liberate women. It was a modern, progressive religion. And a lot of the teachings have been stolen."
Stolen, she says, by religious radicals.
"And I feel that it's time we set the record straight," Ali says.
Part of setting the record straight is her participation in this year's Parliament of the World's Religions, which begins Sunday in Chicago. This year marks Ali's first time at the gathering, where she's slated to speak on women and Islam.
People of many faiths gather around curiosity and hope
The Parliament is one of the world's largest inter-faith gatherings and comes at a time when belief is often seen as a force that divides. But its progressive organizers want to send a different message
Some 10,000 participants from more than 80 countries and 200 religious traditions will convene in Chicago.
The meeting has its origins back in 1893, when the first Parliament of the World's Religions took place as part of the world's fair known as the Columbian Exposition. The gathering was held in what is now the Art Institute of Chicago and is viewed as the birth of the modern interfaith movement, which holds that different religions have something to learn from each other and can cooperate for the good of humanity.
The first revival of that 1893 Parliament took place in 1993 to mark the centennial of the original event. Since then, every several years, people from around the world have gathered for similar meetings: 1999 in Cape Town, South Africa; 2004 in Barcelona, Spain; 2009 in Melbourne, Australia; 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah; and 2018 in Toronto, Canada. The 2021 Parliament was held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among this year's participants is Michael Bernard Beckwith, founder of Agape International Spiritual Center in Los Angeles, part of the New Thought movement.
He's attended earlier Parliaments and appreciates the forward-looking nature of the gatherings, which are less concerned with differences and conflicts than they are with similarities.
One of the things Beckwith appreciates most about the Parliament is that it is not about proselytizing or convincing others about one's own religion. Rather, he says people come together out of genuine interest in and curiosity about belief traditions other than their own.
"So, you're not living a life from fear, doubt and worry," he says. "You're living life being pulled by a vision and being inspired by that vision to make a difference on the planet."
Part of making that difference, he says, will come during the Parliament's symposium on global ethics. The hope is to discuss and sign a document called Towards a Global Ethic, which outlines what Beckwith calls a moral compass.
"We want to commit ourselves to a culture of non-violence and respect for life," he says, "a culture of solidarity and a just economic order, a culture of life and truthfulness in this time of fake news, a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women, a culture of sustainability and care for the Earth."
This idea of a global ethic has its origins in the work of the Swiss theologian and Catholic priest Hans Küng. Those who sign the document, a draft of which was first adopted at the 1993 Parliament, agree to principally strive for the common good. Each Parliament includes revisions to the global ethic and additional signatories.
Religion's power can harm but also help
The theme of this year's Parliament is "A Call to Conscience: Defending Freedom and Human Rights." It's a call close to program chair Phyllis Curott's heart.
"We are we recognize that we are creating the world as we wish it to be," she says.
Curott is a Wiccan priestess, author and lawyer who has attended every Parliament since 1993. She says these gatherings are opportunities to strive for idealism during troubling times.
"My hope is that the individuals who attend will come out of it awake," she says. "Enlightened as to the crisis that we are all facing, this global crisis, this scourge of authoritarianism and the threat that it poses to each of us both individually and collectively to our freedom to our human rights to our freedom to practice our faith whatever it is."
Curott says the rise of totalitarian and authoritarian leaders—both religious and political—around the world and in the U.S. was the impetus for the theme. And it's her contention that people of faith and people of good will can change that harsh reality.
But it is sometimes difficult, says Parliament executive director Stephen Avino, for people to see the good that religions do given how people use faith to abridge the rights of others based on race, gender and sexual orientation.
"I think the biggest hurdle is that people have been using religion to cause harm," he says, "And it has turned people away from religion in general."
But the 10,000 or so people of good will who'll gather in Chicago next week make him optimistic.
Despite the reality of the harm religions cause, there is still hope believes Muslim women's advocate Anila Ali.
"Religion is a very powerful tool," she says.
Depending on who wields it, Ali says, religious power can bring destruction or light.
"It is also like fire."
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.