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The 2004 Parliament of World Religions was organized in partnership with the Universal Forum of Cultures – Barcelona 2004 (which runs from May to September) and in association with the UNESCO Centre of Catalonia. 8000 Religious and spiritual practitioners from all over the world converged to Barcelona to greet and meet each other in peace. 400 carefully selected seminars, workshops, performances and films were offered in the PWR program. They addressed three core themes: Sustainable development, Cultural diversity and Conditions for peace through spiritual practice, religious identity, and intra- and inter-religious dialogue. The Forum was supported by the presence of people like The Archbishop of Barcelona, Dr. Abdullah
Omar Nasseef (President of the Muslim World Congress), Ela Gandhi (granddaughter of Mahatama Gandhi), Rabbi Henry J. Sobel (Chief Rabbi of Brazil) and many more.
What was I doing there? I’ve been dabbling in interfaith dialogue since I moved to Canada in 1989, but 9/11 threw me into the heart of this discourse – something I call ‘damage control’. Last year, I saw a call for papers for PWR and I immediately called my partners in interfaith dialogue, Karen and Barbara and said, “I’m going – are you coming with me?” They were thrilled at the opportunity with the venue in Barcelona being a bonus. We worked together on a proposal titled “Keeping the Path Clear – Women engaging in Inter-faith, Inter-action and Inter-relationships”. By June 2004 we hadn’t heard back from PWR but we decided to go anyway. At the end of June, I was looking through the online program and I found our names – our proposal had been accepted!
For me, this was a journey from the heart. Whenever I read or talked about Muslim history, I used to imagine the rich Muslim, Jewish and Christian heritage of Spain when the three faiths lived in harmony and reached out to each other spiritually and intellectually. Here was a chance to promote that same essence of pluralism and I felt specially blessed to be chosen for this opportunity. It was only later I discovered how fortunate we were to be chosen from among the thousands of proposals that were submitted.
On our first day in Barcelona, as Barb, Karen and I were riding the Metro to the Fourm site, we met a couple wearing PWR badges and started chatting. As we exchanged names the lady said “so you are Raheel Raza?” I was taken aback! She is the Vice President of PWR and she knew me through our proposal, which she said she personally approved because there weren’t too many women presenters for interfaith dialogue. We were thrilled and humbled at the same time – to be invited to present along with Priests, Imams and Rabbis, theologians like Hans Kung and Tariq Ramadan, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Adolfor Perez Esquivel (the Portuguese writer), activists like Susan George and authors like Deepak Chopra – it was a gift.
The Forum site is a 30-hectare space next to the Mediterranean Sea and an extension of the waterfront that began with the 1992 Olympic Games. It was a sight for sore eyes and hearts. A sea of people in colors of the world.Dresses, voices, faces of diversity. The orange robes of Buddhist monks mingling with white dresses of the Sufis – everyone stopped and wished each other in peace, smiled and sometimes spontaneously hugged each other. This was beyond tolerance – it was embracing each other and this ambience permeated the entire forum. You could see people communicating in halls, corridors, pathways and waiting areas.
Throughout the Forum site there were 4 major exhibitions, 22 smaller shows, 400 concerts, 170 music groups, 60 street performances and 4 circuses. No matter where you went, there were interactive installations, markets, games and fun. Two permanent exhibits were remarkable: Voices and Corners Make Cities. The event was hi-tech and well organized with hundreds of youth volunteers from all over the world.
Our trio caused some surprise – a yogi nun from America who had heard Shirin Ebadi Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 2003, speak at the plenary told me she had never met such strong Muslim women before and she hoped we would change the world! Shirin Ebadi, stated in the opening of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, “human rights cannot be protected with bombs” and denounced the despotic behaviour of those “who ignore human rights and democracy with the argument of belonging to a different culture and shadow dictatorial regimes with religious and nationalistic arguments.”
In her address speech Ebadi defended that Islam is compatible with respect for human rights and democracy. She went on to state, “God has made human beings different but the ultimate goal of all religions is the pursuit of happiness and thus all religions can share the things they have in common.”
We attended as many dialogue sessions as we could, sometimes together and other times separately. It was difficult to choose from almost 100 sessions a day on topics ranging from Atheism to Zoroastrianism. Barb attended a session where she heard the stories of Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Druze women about why they meet together regularly in Palestine and Jerusalem to get to know each other and understand each other despite suicide bombings, assassinations and wars. “It was truly an inspiration” says Barb, “If these women, who have suffered and seen so much, are able to work together to stop wars and to help create peace, then surely, this can be done anywhere!”
Karen attended a variety of sessions including one on the religious content of the current “Lord of the Rings” film series. Her reaction was “As the people of the world’s faiths we came a long way to this Parliament and we came a long way together in this Parliament. We noted that there is still a long way to go as the faiths of the world learn to be with one another and with people of no faith. It was also a part of the reality of this awesome event that some faiths present felt discriminated against even while there. It was also a part of the reality of this event that the role and acceptance of women in inter-faith dialogue is still an open question and that some of the really difficult and painful questions about the role of faith in our current world situation were not being asked.”
Three of us always met for lunch at the same place – The Parliament by the Sea. This was a tent city set up on the seashore of the sea by the Sikh community of Birmingham, U.K. Here volunteers from the Sikh community ages 16 to 60 first welcomed people, then poured water on their hands, gave people headscarves and served lunch, drinks and water to almost 6000 people a day. They also invited participants to pray in their scared spaces tent. My longing for ‘desi’ food was well satisfied with pooris (fried bread), daal (lentils), chawal (rice)and achaar (Pickle).
Our presentation was slotted for Saturday July 10 at 11:30 and we arrived there early – nervous because we had no way of knowing how many people would attend. To our delight a trustee from PWR came to introduce our session and told us how important it was to acknowledge the work we are doing – wow we felt honoured. Our room filled up soon with diverse people including some Barcelona Muslims. At every level I felt we were blessed – our translator was a Canadian volunteer who lived in Valencia, and she made sure that nothing was lost in translation. Karen, Barb and I spoke about the work we do and why we do it. Many in the audience were amazed at Karen being a Minister. At the end of our session, we distributed little boxes with a Canadian maple syrup candy, a Canada pin and a message saying “Pray for Peace – Act for Peace” while we
played Dawud Wharnsby Ali’s song called “People of the Boxes” from the CD “The Prophet’s Hands”. Later people came up to meet us. A man wearing an Arab dress and a kufi, came to me, blessed me for the work we do and to my surprise, had tears running down his face as he said, “you make me proud to be Muslim”. It wasn’t the only time in Barcelona that I felt touched to tears.
The same evening, the City of Barcelona has arranged for “A Communities Night” so that people of faith could meet their own communities in different parts of the city. Barbara and I went to Ramlas Raval and met the Barcelona Muslim community. There is a large Arab and Pakistani community active in Barcelona and the Imams of two mosques gave talks condemning violence and terrorism which was heartening to hear and even more heartening to hear that after the Madrid train bombing, people of all faiths had joined together in Barcelona and done candlelight vigils for peace. We then went and feasted on Pakistani food at the Taj Mahal Restaurant and had real ‘chai’ for the first time since our visit.
Next night, there was a Sacred Music concert at the Sagrada Familia (The Sacred Family) Cathedral, which is one of the most outstanding landmarks of Barcelona built by renowned architect Antoni Gaudi and still unfinished. It’s an awe-inspiring structure and this was the venue to the concert where ten religious traditions presented music, movement, meditation and chants. Karen says “It was humbling, it was challenging, it was inspiring. All of the words of the songs, in whichever of God’s languages they were heard, all of the rhythms – the beat of the Japanese drums, the whirl of the Sufi dancers, the clapping of the Gospel choir, the call for peace in Hebrew and Arabic by Sheva, a Jewish-Muslim band, the chant of the Buddhist monks – proclaimed the truth – Hallelujah, God is Great! The call to all of us is to continue, with every breath we take, every word we speak, every hand we touch to proclaim the depth of that truth.” The moment was sublime – the message eternal and beyond barriers of faith, culture or nationality. We were people of faith bound by our belief in God. The concert ended with 10 children of 10 traditions holding up peace lights.
And of course there is Barcelona – the City of ‘veiled’ buildings, stunning architecture and intricate fountains. We spent a day touring the city on a typical on/off bus tour so we could wander. From the Place de Catalunya, we visited The Old Quarter, Guell Park, Montjuic, Palau Reial and went crazy shopping at the Poble Espanyol which is a Spanish village built in 1929 with full scale replicas of traditional Spanish architecture. Here I was able to stroll the streets and squares of Al-Andalus and Cordoba.
As the Parliament of the World’s Religions came to a close after a week of debates centered around commitments on the issues of religious violence, access to safe water, the fate of refugees worldwide, and the elimination of developing countries’ debts, religious leaders who convened the gathering deemed the event a success.
The Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religion’s Executive Director Dirk Ficca said that one fundamental difference between this gathering and others discussing the same subjects was that, “when people of faith commit to address religious violence and other pressing issues facing the global community they follow through. We make a commitment not only to the world, but out of a deeply rooted religious or spiritual conviction. That is what makes the Barcelona Parliament commitments so special, and why this year’s Parliament in Barcelona is going to make an impact.”