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Unique Parliament of World Religions celebrates diversity.

Lofty speeches jostle for attention with old theological grudges

CHICAGO, Ill. - Outside, fundamentalist Christians handed out tracts on hell and paradise. Inside, Buddhists chanted sutras, and American Indians, in full regalia, listened with Zen monks as a Gregorian choir sang the Kyrie.

The scene was the Parliament of the World's Religions at the Palmer House Hilton Hotel Aug. 28-Sept. 5. A century ago in this same city, 400 men and women from 41 religious bodies met in interfaith dialogue. This gathering was viewed as the successor of that meeting.

The gathering drew some 6,000 religious leaders and faithful, representing some 125 faiths from around the world. Organizers called the event "the greatest gathering of religious and spiritual leaders in history."

During opening ceremonies, speakers offered invocations and blessings in various languages and traditions. Participants made special efforts to respect the sacred rituals of the others.

They said they came to celebrate a common longing and to recommit the world's religions to work together to solve the planet's many problems including seemingly pandemic violence, population growth, AIDS and spreading ecological ruin. Many expressed the view that it was none too soon for the world's religious leaders to rededicate themselves to common effort.

Some prominent religious figures who had hoped to attend did not show. Mother Teresa, for example, was recovering from a recent bout with malaria and unable to attend; Benedictine Fr. Bede Griffith, a parliament promoter, died last May.

The gathering explored a host of subject matters including the impact of the world's religions on the ethics of business, population and technology. Workshops were many and varied: "The Greening of Judaism"; "The Seduction of Eve and the Politics of Gender"; and "Hatha Yoga Therapeutics."

Archbishop Francesco Gioia of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue represented the Vatican. Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and other Catholic speakers addressed subjects such as genetic engineering and euthanasia. Bernardin, during the opening plenary session, spoke of a widespread "hunger for the transcendent" and the dream of harmony among all people.

As major presentations drew crowds that filled the mammoth conference room, hundreds spilled over into adjacent quarters, where projections were electronically beamed to giant screens.

A group of Africans, who said that God "told them to come," were among those struggling to get in at the last moment. "God apparently forgot to tell them to register," quipped a conference organizer.

Sites and scenes:

* Adherents of Jainism in pure white robes suspended white cards over their mouths with strings as an act of nonviolence - to avoid inhaling (and killing) even microscopic organisms.

* Watergate figure Charles Colson was awarded a $1 million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.

* Boy Scout representatives mingled, affirming their religious orientation after the recent exclusion of an atheist from scouting.

* An exhibit announced the coming of "Maitreya," a person sighted in Africa and Europe, believed to be the Jewish messiah, the risen Christ and the "Buddha of the Future.'

Participants spent together in silent meditation. They were here, some said, not to make history as much as to influence the future, through redefining spiritual values for a planet in crisis.

Lutheran physicist Gerald Barney outlined concerns for planetary survival in relation to land, food and population. He recommended greater population control, land preservation and increased crop yields. Barney lamented that the world's biggest industry continues to be arms production and sales. He called on religious bodies to reexamine fundamental assumptions and to ask whether some were not only ancient but antiquated.

Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz-Garcia of Chiapas, Mexico, reminded listeners that God is "a companion to the poor."

Rabbi Henry Sieg spoke for the physically and the spiritually homeless." He said, "The ruthlessness of our times may be related to our rootlessness."

Robert Muller offered a searing assessment, saying that religions have "spent more time on old texts than on human needs. ... We need a new spiritual world order for the next millennium."

Jill Bates, a Catholic educator from Illinois, said that watching a Muslim school being built in her community opened her eyes anew to the concerns of the Middle East.

Many exhibits tended to represent new and emerging religious organizations rather than those from mainstream traditions. Wiccan and neopagan brochures were everywhere.

During a plenary session on dispossessed peoples of the world, Kashmiris and Sikhs accused each other of alleged atrocities in Punjab and elsewhere in India. Some Hindus walked out as a Tibetan Buddhist attempted to de-escalate the tension. As the shouting peaked, a small group began singing "We Shall Overcome." The song spread through the huge hall and culminated in large circles of clasped hands.

The parliament closed with a group of religious leaders issuing a "Declaration of a Global Ethic." Swiss theologian Fr. Hans Kung, here from the University of Tubingen, oversaw the drafting of the document.
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Author:Rodenbaugh, Dana
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Sep 10, 1993
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