My Melbourne Experience at the Parliament of World Religions

pofwr2By Abdul Hai Patel

The year 2009 will be remembered for number of international gatherings and conferences. A year, when G8 summit is changed to G20 summit, an Environment conference in Copenhagen and host of other political, social and religious conferences. But in my opinion, the most significant gathering of the year 2009 took place in Melbourne, Australia from December 3rd to December 8th, 2009.

imam_patelThis southern most city of Australia played host to some 6,000 people from around the World, representing almost every faith, for what I observed was the largest Multi-faith gathering of this decade. Speakers, participants and volunteers, all came at their own expense.

This was the Conference of Parliament of World Religions, held every five years. It is an idea that originated in 1893 in Chicago, espousing the message of uniting all faiths on one platform to share and promote understanding and respect for all religions of the World.

In 1893, the Parliament marked the first formal gathering of representatives of eastern and western spiritual traditions. Today it is recognized as the birth of first formal inter-religious dialogue worldwide.

The Council of World Parliament of World Religions (CPWR), officially dates from 1888, when two Swamis (monks) from Vivekananda Vedanta Society of Chicago, suggested organizing a centennial celebration of the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition.

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, as the Australian public, from faith groups to politicians and law enforcements welcomed us with open arms. Its newly built; state of the art convention centre in the heart of the business district was ideally suited for this gathering.

In late winter of 2009, 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 co-presenting a workshop on “Being a University Chaplain in 21st Century”, at the Parliament in Melbourne. We have known each other since 2004, when I attended 2nd quadrennial conference of International Campus Chaplains at Griffith University.

I agreed and our abstract was submitted. I couldn’t submit my own abstract in time, for another topic, dealing with Human Rights and Religions. In August, when I returned to Toronto after visiting four countries in Asia, I got an e-mail from Dr. Blundell that our proposal was accepted and now I have to make my way to Melbourne.

So on November 30, I boarded the flight to Melbourne, arriving there on December 2nd, loosing a day by crossing the International Date Line. This was the seventh time I have crossed this date line in the last four years.

Accommodation was at prime for such a large gathering, so Melbourne residents were asked to open their doors to host delegates both, as cost saving measure and to encourage inter-faith relations. I was hosted by a Pakistani Muslim family, whose hospitality was overwhelming.

My host, 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 has to go to visit a newly established Remand Centre to celebrate Eid ul-Adha barbecue with Muslim Inmates.

I told him about my position as President of Ontario Multifaith Council, an Ontario Government funded agency to ensure access to religious and spiritual care in Correctional facilities, Senior Homes and Hospitals. I expressed my desire to accompany him, hoping for access without prior security clearance. There, we were met with Muslim Chaplain Mr. Aziz Cooper, who is the full-time Chaplain by 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 fifteen minutes I got the clearance and was able to visit Inmates, ate lunch, prayed Zuhr with them and give a lecture about significance of Eid ul-Adha.

The same evening was the opening Plenary, which began with a word of welcome by the Australian Aboriginal Speaker, followed by one minute prayer by a dozen faith representatives. Then the usual welcome speeches from the Organizers and the Mayor of Melbourne and other State Government officials. It is a custom in Australia, that in all public gatherings, speakers acknowledge the ownership and pay tribute to the Aboriginal people at the beginning of the speech.

The next day and every day the conference began at 8 a.m. with prayer session of various faiths.

After the Friday prayers at mid-day, my presentation was scheduled. My co-presenters were Dr. Patricia Blundell form Griffith University and Dr. Sharon Kugler form Yale University in USA.

About 50 people attended the 2 hours workshop.

The same evening was designated as Community night, where the local faith communities in Melbourne hosted receptions in their places of worship or other Banquet Halls for delegates. I chose to go to the reception hosted by Islamic Council of Victoria, attended by 200 people. The Governor of Victoria, Deputy Chair of the Multi cultural Council of Victoria, and Dr. Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the opposition in Malaysia were among the guests in attendance.

My host, informed me about some of the interfaith activities in Victoria and one was a request form a Church in a small town called Ararat, about 200 kms out of Melbourne. They could not find anyone to go there. So I offered to go, by train, as my host had to volunteer at the conference. As we were coming home, at 11 p.m., my host received a timely call from Dr. Muhammad Imad Khan, a young Muslim asking if there was any opportunity for volunteer work. He was asked to drive me to Ararat the next morning and he agreed. He provided good companionship, as we shared lots of common interest.

Next morning, we drove to Ararat, admiring the beautiful country side. There are six Muslim families in this town, where the Mayor has given them a building to be used as an Islamic Center/Mosque.

These six brothers work in the local Abattoir, doing the Halal slaughter of lambs, which is exported all over the World, with ICCV Halal seal. The Muslims had held Iftar dinner last Ramadan, for all local Churches and one of these Churches 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 presented Islam 101 using my power point presentation, followed by a lengthy questions 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 Eid Dinner organized by a Pakistani Association called UMMA -United Muslim Migrant Association Inc. It was a typical community event with entertainment for children and a sumptuous dinner.

The next three days I attended number of sessions in the conference.

Some of the noon-time sessions were carried live on Australian ABC TV on their show called Compass. In one of these sessions, dealing with “Creating Social Cohesion in Village and City,” the Swiss Minaret issue dominated the discussion. Among the six panelists was Prof. Qurashi. And her remarks caught my attention very much, as she asked: “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 the next day, Professor Tariq Ramadan and Professor Chandra Muzaffar, strongly criticized the attitude of the West towards Islam, and made it into an enemy after the collapse of communism, an unprovoked war on Islam, fuelled by western hegemony.

There were many prominent Muslim Scholars male and female, in the Conference. Among them was Imam Dr. Faisal Abdul Rauf from New York, son of late famous Imam and pioneer Dr. Abdul Rauf in Washington, well known to some of us old timers.

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

A female Muslim Lawyer from Chicago, Janan Hashim, enlightened the audience in the session on Hijab, that in USA, first and fifth Amendments protect the women from wearing Hijab. However, one antiquated law enacted 120 years ago for Irish Catholics, targeting dress code of Nuns, is now being invoked for Muslims. Janan Hashim is the Founder of the first, all Muslim Women Law firm Amal Law Group LLC, with five Muslim women Lawyers.

There were number of sessions on environment. Deep concerns expressed over loosing arable lands to Industry, Urbanization and Western tourism. Hotels and Golf courses are replacing agricultural lands in many Island nations for tourism.

The Toronto office of the Turkish Inter Cultural Association contacted the local office in Melbourne about my presence in their city, so on 8th December; I was invited by the local office Selemiya Foundation for a visit to the local Mosque, a High School for Boys and its office. The Association runs well organized about 45 schools in Australia. Their graduates receiving high level of acceptance in Universities. It is also very active in Inter faith work.

In the evening Victoria Police had organized a reception for selected delegates at Eitihad Stadium. I was one of the invitees based on my involvement with Toronto and York Regional Police. I took letters of greetings from both Toronto and York Police along with a bag full of pins, flags, key chains and pens from 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 the Dr. Helen Szoke, CEO of Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Council.

On the final day, the closing ceremony was also spectacular. Dalai Lama delivered the key note address. There was one minute prayer by dozen faith representatives. As the conference was winding down, there was an atmosphere of gloom evident in the convention centre. Eight days of joy, suddenly changed to sadness, smile turn in to tears, as the delegates said goodbye to one another.

The degree of sadness was so profound as if members of the family were being separated. True in its sense, the eight days of bonding produced a truly Multifaith family that transcended all barriers of religion, race 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 in the World.

On the last day, 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, where 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 Healthcare, chaplaincy Council of Victoria.

As an avid fan and follower of the game of Cricket, City of Melbourne has always fascinated me, for its historic significance in Cricketing world. Ashes series, a symbol of rivalry between England and Australia was born here in 1882. Every year, 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 this famous legendary MCG. I had indicated to my Host, that I would very much like to see MCG, however, hectic conference schedule prevented me from any free time to see it, although it was just few kilometres away.

So on the afternoon of the last day, my host, interrupting his schedule to take me to see it from outside, as we had the above event to attend. And this Ziyara [visit] of MCG from outside was stunning. It was quite a site, even from outside. It was a dream half fulfilled, which begs a return visit.

At the Hospital graduation event, my friend Dr. Muhammad Imad Khan, asked me if I had a chance to see Kangaroo? He said an Australian visit will not be complete if I have not seen Kangaroos. To which I said no and there is no time left as my flight leaves at noon the next day. So few hours before the flight in the morning, he interrupted his schedule of his wife’s Doctor’s appointment to take me to see the Aussie’s national animal in the suburb.

And what a site to see so many of them roaming in grassy lands. I was lucky to see a baby Kangaroo in a mother Kangaroo’s pouch, which is a rare sight. I was a reminded of the following verses in the Quran:

“O people, we have created you in to different tribes and nations, so that you may know each other, by expressing love not hate” (Ch49:V13).

“And so amongst men and crawling creatures and cattle, are they of various colours” (Ch 35:V28).

Just as human race is distributed all over the globe, other creatures and animals are also distributed all over the globe and fixed their habitation. What a way to complete this historic visit, saying hello and bye to the loving peaceful Kangaroos of Victoria.