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January 20, 2010

At the Parliament of World Religions

Imam Dr. Abdul Hai Patel

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In my opinion, the most significant gathering of 2009 took place in Melbourne, Australia, from Dec 3-8: The Conference of World Parliament of World Religions.

Imam Dr. Abdul Hai PatelIn my opinion, the most significant gathering of 2009 took place in Melbourne, Australia, from Dec 3-8: The Conference of World Parliament of World Religions.

This southernmost city of Australia played host to some 6,000 people for the decade’s largest multifaith gathering. Speakers, participants and volunteers from around the world came at their own expense.

The conference is held every five years and espouses the message of uniting all faiths on one platform to share and promote understanding and respect for all religions.

The first Parliament of representatives of eastern and western spiritual traditions took place in Chicago in 1893 in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition. Today, this gathering is recognized as the first formal international inter-religious dialogue.

The Council of World Parliament of World Religions (CPWR) officially dates from 1988 when two swamis (monks) from Vivekananda Vedanta Society of Chicago suggested organizing a centennial celebration of the 1893 Chicago Parliament. Its mission statement reads:

“The Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions was created to cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities, and foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions in order to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world. To accomplish this, we invite individuals and communities who are equally invested in attaining this goal.”

The choice of Melbourne for 2009 conference was just right. The Australian public, from faith groups to politicians and law enforcement agencies, welcomed us with open arms. The state-of-the-art convention centre in the heart of the business district was ideal for this gathering.

Late last winter, I received an e-mail from Dr. Patricia Blundell, a campus chaplain from Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, asking me if I would be interested in coming to co-present a workshop: “Being a University Chaplain in the 21st Century.” We had known each other since 2004, when I attended the second quadrennial conference of International Campus Chaplains at Griffith University.

I agreed, and our abstract was submitted. In August, when I returned to Toronto after visiting four Asian countries, I found an e-mail from Dr. Blundell stating that our proposal had been accepted. So, on November 30 I boarded a flight to Melbourne.

My Experience

I arrived on Dec 2 after gaining a day by crossing the International Date Line. This was the seventh time I crossed the date line in the last four years. Accommodation in Melbourne was at a premium for such a large gathering, so residents were asked to open their doors to host delegates, both as a cost-saving measure and to encourage interfaith relations. I was hosted by a Pakistani Muslim family, whose hospitality was overwhelming.

My host Mr. Manzoor Ahmed Mian, an engineer by profession, is very active in the Muslim community, especially as a volunteer chaplain for prisons and hospitals. On the second day of my arrival, I was informed that he had to visit a newly established remand centre to celebrate the Eid ul Adha barbecue with Muslim Inmates.

I told him about my position as president of the Ontario Multifaith Council, a provincial government-funded agency that ensures access to religious and spiritual care in correctional facilities, seniors’ homes and hospitals. I expressed a desire to accompany him, hoping for access without prior security clearance. There, we were met by Muslim chaplain Mr. Aziz Cooper, who is a full-time chaplain for the Islamic Council of Victoria for chaplaincy work in the State of Victoria.

I was introduced with my passport and York Regional Police Chaplain ID and requested access. Normally it takes three weeks for clearance; however, within 15 minutes I got clearance. I visited inmates, ate lunch, prayed zuhr with them, and give a lecture about the significance of Eid-ul-Adha.

The opening plenary session began that same evening. It began with a word of welcome from the Australian aboriginal speaker, followed by a one-minute prayer by a dozen faith representatives, and the usual welcoming speeches from the organizers, mayor of Melbourne, and other state government officials. It is a custom in Australia that at all public gatherings speakers begin by acknowledging the ownership of, and pay tribute to, the aboriginal people.

The conference began every day at 8 a.m. with a prayer session of various faiths. After the Friday prayers at midday, my presentation was scheduled. My co-presenters were Dr. Blundell and Dr. Sharon Kugler from Yale University. About 50 people attended the two-hour workshop.

The evening was designated “community night,” and Melbourne’s local faith communities hosted receptions for delegates in their places of worship or banquet halls. I chose to go to the reception hosted by the Islamic Council of Victoria. About 200 people attended, including the Governor of Victoria, the deputy chair of the Multicultural Council of Victoria, and Dr. Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition in Malaysia.

My host Mr. Mian informed me about some of the interfaith activities, one of which was a request from a church in Ararat, a small town about 200 km from Melbourne. Since he had to volunteer at the conference, I offered to go by train. As we were coming home at 11 p.m. my host received a timely call from Dr. Muhammad Imad Khan, a young Muslim asking there was any opportunity for volunteer work. He was asked if he could drive me to Ararat the next morning and he agreed. He provided good companionship, as we shared lots of common interests. As we drove to Ararat, we admired the beautiful countryside. There are six Muslim families in this town, where the mayor gave them a building to use as an Islamic centre/mosque.

Six Muslim brothers work in the local abattoir, doing the halal slaughter of lambs, which are exported all over the world under the ICCV halal seal. The Muslims had held iftar dinner last Ramadan for all local churches, one of which invited them to present Islam to its congregation. We were warmly greeted by Pastor Rev. Townson of the Seventh Day Adventist Church and about 40 members of the congregation. I gave my Powerpoint presentation of Islam 101, which was followed by a lengthy question-and-answer session. Many said that they were now better informed, and lot of misunderstandings was cleared up. We then visited the local Islamic Center/Mosque and prayed zuhr and departed for Melbourne to attend an Eid dinner organized by a Pakistani Association called UMMA, United Muslim Migrant Association Inc. It was a typical community event with a sumptuous dinner and entertainment for children.

Over the next three days I attended a number of sessions. Some of the noon sessions were carried live on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s TV show Compass. During one of them, “Creating Social Cohesion in Village and City;” the Swiss minaret issue dominated. Among the six panelists was Professor Suhair al-Qurashi, who caught my attention when she said:

“Never mind the Minaret. It is a non issue, but since 9/11, every few months something on Islam or Muslim is being picked to stir debate and controversy, thereby fuelling more Islamophobia. What is the agenda and how this is going to create social cohesion?” In a similar session next day, Dr. Tariq Ramadan and Professor Dr. Chandra Muzaffar strongly criticized the West for turning Islam into an enemy after the collapse of communism, and for launching an unprovoked war on Islam, fuelled by Western hegemony.

There were many prominent Muslims at the conference, among whom was Imam Dr. Feisal Abdul Rauf from New York. He is the son of the famous late Imam and pioneer Dr. Abdul Rauf from Washington, well known to some of us old-timers.

I attended a couple of sessions dealing with women issues, related to women’s contribution in the development of the world. At one session, Dr. Qurashi, CEO of Darul Al-Hekma College for Women in Saudi Arabia, gave a very informative presentation about the contributions of Muslim women scientists, which are not to be found in most books. In fact, even standard science books hardly mention women scientists of any faith or culture.

A female Muslim lawyer from Chicago, Janan Hashim, enlightened the audience in the session on the hijab. She said that in the U.S., the First and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution uphold the right of women to wear the hijab. However, one antiquated law enacted 120 years ago targeting the dress code of nuns for Irish Catholics, is now being invoked for Muslims. Janan Hashim is the founder of the first all-female Muslim law firm, Amal Law Group LLC, which has five lawyers.

There were number of sessions on environment. Deep concerns were expressed over losing arable land to industry, urbanization and Western tourism. Hotels and golf courses are replacing agricultural lands in many island nations.

The Toronto office of the Turkish Inter Cultural Association contacted the local office in Melbourne about my presence in their city, so on Dec. 8, I was invited by the local office of the Selemiya Foundation to visit to the local mosque, a high school for boys and its office. The association runs about 45 well-organized schools in Australia. Their graduates receive high levels of acceptance in universities. It is also very active in interfaith work.

In the evening, the Victoria police organized a reception for selected delegates at Eitihad Stadium. I was one of the invitees based on my involvement with the Toronto and York Regional Police. I took letters of greetings from both forces along with a bag full of pins, flags, key chains and pens from the York Regional Police. They were well received by the local police. I also had a chance to meet first Australian female police officer in hijab, Senior Constable Maha Sukkar, as well as Dr. Helen Szoke, CEO of the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

On the final day, the closing ceremony was spectacular. The Dalai Lama delivered the keynote address and there was a one-minute prayer by dozen faith representatives. As the conference was winding down, though, there was an atmosphere of gloom in the convention centre. Eight days of joy suddenly changed to sadness, and smiles turned into tears as delegates said good-bye to one another. The degree of sadness was so profound it was as if members of a family were being separated. Truly, the eight days of bonding produced a multifaith family that transcended all barriers of religion, ethnicity and nationalism. It was time to say au revoir until 2014, when we shall meet again. Parliament’s newly elected chair, Abdul Malik Mujahid, from Chicago, appealed for a new vision of unity and harmony for all religions.

I was invited by my host to attend an award ceremony for Muslims trained to be lay chaplains at the local hospital. This was another milestone in the community, as Muslim volunteers stepped forward for a very worthy obligation to provide religious and spiritual care in all hospitals. It provided an opportunity for me to meet Rev. Cheryl Holmes, CEO of The Healthcare Chaplaincy Council of Victoria.

Because I am an avid cricket fan, Melbourne’s historic significance in cricketing world has always fascinated me. The Ashes series, a symbol of rivalry between England and Australia, was born here in 1882. Every year, the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), perhaps the largest in the world, is always host to a Boxing Day test match for any touring team. I have always wanted to see the legendary MCG. I had indicated to my host that I would very much like to see MCG; however, the hectic conference schedule prevented me, even though it was just few kilometres away.

So, on the afternoon of the last day, Mr. Mian, interrupted his schedule to take me to see it from the outside, as we had the above event to attend. And this ziyara [visit] was stunning. It was quite a site, even from outside. It was a dream half fulfilled, which calls for a return visit.

At the hospital graduation event, my friend Dr. Muhammad Imad Khan asked me if I had a chance to see a kangaroo. He said an Australian visit would not be complete if I had not seen one. I said “no,” and that there was no time because my flight left at noon the next day. Nevertheless, a few hours before the flight, he interrupted his schedule to take me to the suburbs to see Australia’s national animal.

And what a sight is was to see so many of them roaming the grassland. I was lucky to see a baby kangaroo in its mother’s pouch, which is a rare sight. I was a reminded of the following verses in the Qur’an:

“O, people! We have created you into different tribes and nations so that you may know each other by expressing love not hate” (Ch. 49: V13) “And so amongst men and crawling creatures and cattle, they are of various colours.” (Ch. 35: V28)

Just as the human race is distributed all over the globe, so are other creatures and animals. What a way to complete this historic visit—saying hello and good-bye to the loving, peaceful kangaroos of Victoria.

Imam Dr. Abdul Hai Patel lives in Toronto.

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