Religious leaders gather at conference to tackle worldwide problems

Learned Muslim clerics, Buddhist monks and Roman Catholic cardinals rarely find themselves in the same place at the same time with gurus, cult followers and mystics. But the Parliament of World's Religions, convening a weeklong conference here Wednesday, is out to change all that.

Call it religious globalization or spiritual summitry. The Chicago-based organization expects to draw about 6,500 religious leaders, activists and followers of Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam to the assembly. Billed as part of a "cultural Olympics," the conference is being held on the grounds of the 100-acre site of the "Universal Forum of Cultures," a more secular, 5-month-long humanities festival that began in May along Barcelona's sea front.

The world's great faiths have certainly interacted in the past. But in gathering traditional religions with those of a more New Age flavor, the parliament is seeking written commitments from the faithful to help tackle four worldwide problems: refugees, water shortages, religious violence and increasing debt.

"The hallmark of the conference is to help put a human face on these four issues," said the Rev. Dirk Ficca, executive director of the parliament. "I will tell you candidly there are these big gatherings all over the world where people tend to go and talk. But we hope for a litany of commitments. A church or synagogue, for example, can go home and host a refugee family."

At the opening assembly Wednesday evening, thousands gathered to listen to chanting Buddhist monks, dressed in orange and red tunics. Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer and human-rights activist who won this year's Nobel Peace prize, gave the keynote address.

"Human rights can be achieved only through democracy," said Ebadi, a longstanding critic of the authoritarian rule of Iran's hard-line clerics. "But democracy also requires a framework. A majority has no right to govern as they please."

Skeptics have criticized previous parliaments for engaging in too much talk and ritual, producing few remedies for the world's problems. But the parliament leaders note that the organization has no legislative authority; the group has sought instead to set a worldwide moral and religious agenda.

The first parliament session was held in Chicago in 1893, thought to be the first time Jews, Catholics, Bahais and Hindus engaged in official dialogue. A century later, the second parliament was held, again in Chicago, and a third in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1999.

At a time of rising Islamic extremism around the world and the war in Iraq, the parliament's organizers are under more pressure to produce action. Discussions will include seminars on Islam's relationship with the West and how a Muslim can practice the faith while living in a Western country. Renowned speakers, including best-selling author Karen Armstrong and Islamic intellectual Tareq Ramadan, who will begin a tenured post at the University of Notre Dame this fall, will lead these seminars.

"As we know, Islam is the target of criticism, and Muslims should explain what they stand for and reach out to the average people. This is my aim," said Ramadan, a Muslim cleric who is the grandson of Hasan al-Banna, the Egyptian thinker who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928.

Spain was chosen in 2002 as the venue for the parliament, long before the March 11 attacks in Madrid, when Islamic militants blew up four packed commuter trains, killing 190 people. The explosions, the worst in Europe in 15 years, make Barcelona an appropriate place for discussing Islam and violence in religion, said parliament organizers, though some would-be participants canceled plans to attend out of fear of further attacks.

"It is interesting how Spain has reacted differently than the United States did to September 11," said Ficca. "I find great sophistication here, even among people on the street, about the difference between Muslims and terrorists. There is greater recognition that there are complex reasons driving terrorism that cannot be solved by waging war."

Leaders of the parliament were asked at a news conference Wednesday how their interfaith dialogue in Barcelona could promote world peace.

"The parliament will not dictate to the world what to do," said Lally Lucretia Warren, a parliament leader from Botswana. "But religion is the chief instrument through which order is established in the world."

Despite an emphasis on working to promote peace, much of Wednesday was devoted to symbolism. Activists lit the World Peace Flame, created in 1999 when seven peacemakers on five continents lit seven peace flames that were flown across the world and later united into one.

They also planted a peace tree on the grounds of the Forum.

Some activists wondered whether the pomp and symbolism would turn to substance over the coming week. The week's schedule is packed with sessions on everything from the value of meditation to Sufi psychology. The seminars include titles such as, "Transforming Inter-Faith Dialogue: A Pathway to Peace," and "The way of the Saints: The Path of Personal Transformation through Meditation."

David Johnston, a Chicago native who now lives in Colorado, helped run the last parliament in South Africa. He said he thinks previous gatherings were dedicated to taking practical action to solve the problems facing the world, rather than engaging in interfaith dialogue.

"Preaching to the choir and chanting in a circle won't change the planet," he said, pointing to the hill in the distance, where about 400 people gathered to plant the peace tree.

"Only when religious groups involve governments and business can they hope to take practical steps to change things," he said.