PARLIAMENT OF WORLD RELIGIONS – BARCELONA 2004

Giorgos Halkias

The Council for a Parliament of World Religions (CPWR) convened from the 7th to 13th of July in Barcelona bearing the theme: Pathways to Peace: the Wisdom of Listening, the Power of Commitment. According to the Parliament’s Program the mission of the CPWR is ‘to cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its other guiding institutions in order to achieve a peaceful, just, and sustainable world’.  The vision of the Council, according to their website (www.cpwr.org), relates a strong message for all religions and their members to take active social means to ensure that:

  • The Earth and all life are cherished, protected, healed and restored
  • Religious and cultural fears and hatreds are replaced with understanding and respect
  • People everywhere come to know and care for their neighbours
  • The richness of human and religious diversity is woven into the fabric of communal, civil, societal and global life
  • The world’s most powerful and influential institutions move beyond narrow self-interest to realize the common good
  • Religious and spiritual communities live in harmony and contribute to a better world from their riches of wisdom and compassion
  •  All people commit to living out their highest values and aspiration

More than 7000 religious leaders and lay people gathered in Barcelona to attend CPWR held as part of the Forum (9 May – 26 September), a global event to promote cultural diversity, sustainable development and conditions for peace. A special site was creatively designed to foster this event located in Diagonal Mar with its landmark, the Forum Building, a massive triangular architectural feat covered in water-containing-glass and mirror-steel made to literally appear like a piece of the Mediterranean Sea was cut and transferred there. All the surrounding beach-front property was constructed keeping in size and functionality with any downtown American city with its tall buildings, amble parking and shopping mall.  With the exception of the Catalan signs and the solar intensity of the Mediterranean landscape, the area surrounding the Forum could fit anywhere in a globe increasingly populated by functional aesthetics and post-modern urban sensibilities.

Each morning the CPWR started with spiritual and religious observances, meditations and prayers.  There were literally hundreds of programs, plenary sessions, symposia, exhibits, events covering the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, Indigenous religions and modern-day cults. Debates by participants of highly diverse religious and ethnic communities centred around commitments on the issues of religious violence, the plight of refugees worldwide, access to safe water, and the elimination of developing countries’ debts.  Pertinent to the Common Declaration on Religion and the Environment1 signed by Pope John Paul II and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in 2002 in Venice, was Puri Canals’, President of the Catalonian environmental organization DEPANA, suggestion to ‘engage the Mediterranean people involved with mountain conservation to promote a network for protection of Mediterranean mountains as a source of water, natural resources and spiritual values’.  In the words of Evelyn Tucker, a professor of Religion and foremost proponent for the constructive role religion can take towards ecology:

    The Barcelona Parliament of World’s Religions is an important occasion to highlight the positive efforts of the world’s religions to respond to the growing environmental crisis which is threatening the foundations of life and ecosystems around the planet. While comprehensive solutions to the environmental crisis remain elusive, there is also increasingly evident that human decisions, values, and behaviour will be crucial for the survival of many life forms on Earth.

Indeed in our debates and discussions on world-peace we must not forget to include our moral responsibility for non-human sentient life and the common environment we share with them. Religious engagements with the environment had began with the inter-religious meetings in Assisi in 1984, under the sponsorship of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and the Vatican in 1986. The reconvening of the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1993 and in Cape Town in 1999 issued statements on Global Ethics advocating human rights and environmental issues. In August 2000 a gathering of some 2,000 religious leaders in New York occurred at the United Nations Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders. All leaders signed a ‘Commitment to Global Peace’ and resolved to address the inter-related pressing problems of conflict, poverty and the environment.

The CPWR was by and large a success  in renewing old commitments and putting forth new initiatives for the world’s religions to face the many social and environmental challenges of our future and inspire globally grass-root movements with similar aims. Scheduled speakers for the seven-day event included Iranian Nobel Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi; Ela Gandhi, a South African peace activist and granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi; German theologian Hans Kung; primatologist and activist Jane Goodall; alternative-health expert and author Deepak Chopra; and Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi (a.k.a. Amma) of India, noted worldwide for blessing her followers with a warm embrace. Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet was unable to speak at the opening plenary session as he had to cancel, according to the Casa del Tibet in Barcelona, because of unexpected illness and not due to Chinese pressure, as reported by Spanish participants, which claimed that the Chinese threatened to remove the terracotta warriors of X’ian in temporary display at the Forum. A small but notable presence of Tibetan-related activities at CPWR included the on-site construction and display of the Kalachakra mandala for world-peace (approx 4 meters in diameter) in the Rambla de Santa Mónica. One of the most significant characteristics of the creation and offering of a sand mandala is its transitory nature. This transience or ‘impermanence’ of all phenomena is a fundamental feature in Buddhist philosophy and reminds us that nothing lasts forever, and that it is necessary not to respond with obsession and strife towards our surroundings. For this reason, and after performing the ceremonies of dissolution, on July 16th the Tibetan monks dismantled the largest ever in the West coloured-sand mandala. At 5:47 pm, following a large procession towards the Maremagum bridge, the mandala was thrown in to the Mediterranean Sea. “The event was dedicated to the animals that live under here, so they can share peace with us,” said Thubten Wangchen, Director of Barcelona’s Tibetan cultural centre, who added that, “even though human rights are not respected in Tibet or China, our philosophy is to teach people how to be happy. We can still be happy despite our problems. The Chinese teach us how to be patient.”