More than 6,000 people representing numerous religions and belief systems are expected to gather in Chicago starting Monday for what organizers are calling the world’s largest gathering of interfaith leaders.
For the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the week-long event marks a return to its roots – the organization was founded in Chicago in 1893. It has met six times in the past 30 years, most recently in Toronto in 2018.
Previous meetings have attracted participants from more than 80 countries. This week’s speakers and presenters represent Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Bahá’í, Hinduism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, indigenous religions, paganism and other faiths.
This year’s theme is ‘A Call to Conscience: Defending Freedom and Human Rights’, with an emphasis on combating authoritarianism around the world. Topics on the agenda include climate change, human rights, food insecurity, racism and women’s rights.
“We will stand up for the rights we are all in danger of losing,” said Rev. Stephen Avino, the organization’s executive director.
Scheduled speakers include UN Secretary General António Guterres, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and Baha’i faith actor Raiin Wilson. The keynote speaker is Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson.
Illustrating the diversity of Parliament, the program chair for this week’s event is Phyllis Curott, a Wiccan priestess who has advocated for the legal rights of witches as an author and advocate.
In a statement ahead of the conference, she attacked authoritarianism as “the most dangerous crisis we all face today.”
“This existential, expanding and global scourge manifests itself in tyrants and strongmen committing crimes against humanity, suppressing essential freedoms, undermining democracies and murdering the truth with lies,” she said. “They promote hatred and the resurgence of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, misogyny and racism.”
Numerous cultural and educational events take place to complement the speeches and discussions, beginning with a Parade of Faiths on Sunday that celebrated Chicago’s diversity. Local faith, spiritual and cultural communities took part in the parade, some accompanied by music and dance that emphasized their history and traditions.
One of the upcoming events is “Guns to Garden Tools”, featuring a blacksmith who will demonstrate how to melt down firearms to make garden tools.
Parliament has no formal powers of any kind. And for all its diversity and global reach, it is not ideologically comprehensive. The participants generally share a progressive outlook; conservative Catholics, evangelicals and Muslims – among others – have not embraced the movement.
Gene Zubovich, a history professor at the University at Buffalo, wrote about the 2018 Toronto rally for the online news magazine Religion & Politics.
“Parliament can come across as an echo chamber of progressive faith traditions,” he wrote. “Given the many religious tensions around the world, the real challenges of interfaith dialogue and the elective crowd in Toronto, the universalist rhetoric could sound a little hollow. “
However, he credited the interfaith movement as evolving over the decades.
“Leadership is much more diverse and inclusive,” he wrote. “Politicians are paying attention to indigenous issues, women’s rights and climate change.”
Cardinal Blase Cupich, the Catholic Archbishop of Chicago, is one of the scheduled speakers this week. He has urged Catholics in the archdiocese to participate in the event, saying it is in line with Pope Francis’ key priorities.
The gathering “is an opportunity to live the teaching of the Holy Father that a core part of our identity as Catholics is building friendship between members of different religious traditions,” Cupich said in a message to the archdiocese last month. “By sharing spiritual and ethical values, we get to know each other.”
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