Come Together

The main event at the Parliament of the World's Religions was an act of hospitality.

BY: Gustav Niebuhr


- Within an immense steel-framed tent, pitched a few yards from the grey-blue waters of the Mediterranean, thousands of Christians, Jews, Muslims and many others have been learning a Sikh word for hospitality. The word is langar and, in practice, it means a vegetarian lunch served free to all comers since July 7, when the week-long Parliament of the World's Religions began in this coastal city in northeastern Spain. "Unless you are charitable, you will not do this," said Bhai Sahib Mohinder Singh, a gracious man with a white beard, white turban and white robes. Mohinder Singh is chairman of the Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha, a Sikh organization headquartered in England. His group built the canvas-topped gurdwara, or Sikh house of worship, complete with carpeted wooden floors for the occasion. "Unless you are humble, you will not do this," Mohinder Singh said.

He could be speaking of the parliament itself, an international assembly that-despite its name-casts no votes. None of the 7,000 attendees in Barcelona were elected. Meeting every five or six years in different cities worldwide, the parliament exists primarily to bring people of different faiths together-ideally, into cooperative contact. That it exists at all testifies to the existence of a religiously oriented peace movement persistent enough to endure even at a time when religion serves some as pretext for acts of terrorism.

Organizers selected Barcelona as their meeting site long ago. But in coming here, participants gathered in a nation recently and deeply scarred by terrorism. Last March 11, in an incident that echoed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, more than 200 people died in a series of bombings of commuter trains in Madrid.

Notable in this atmosphere is the number of sessions devoted to Islam, either exploring aspects of the faith or discussing how Muslims might begin dialogues or collaborate with people of other religions. During a 90-minute period Sunday morning, attendees could choose among four presentations by Muslims from the United States, Europe and Asia. Topics included a beginner-level explanation of the faith, during which panelists sought to puncture Western stereotypes of Islam as violent or oppressive of women.

To some attendees, these sessions represent a broader trend in the way some Muslims have responded to the Sept. 11 attacks, an effort to distinguish the faith itself from the deeds of violent extremists. The Rev. Marcus Braybrooke, a Church of England priest and longtime leader in interfaith work, said, "What has happened now, and has happened in Britain, is a lot of Muslims seem to think they have to have dialogues to explain themselves."

Nurah W. Ammat'ullah, who directs a Muslim women's organization in New York City, agreed that the number of sessions offered on Islam in Barcelona had increased since the parliament met in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1999. But she questioned whether Islam was really any better known among non-Muslims than it had been three years ago, before the Sept. 11 attacks.

It is not just Muslims here who would like to be better understood. After the Sept. 11 attacks, some Sikhs in the United States endured harassment and even violence when people mistakenly thought the turban Sikh men wear suggested some sort of affiliation with Osama bin Laden, who is often pictured in a turban (albeit of a different sort). At their gurdwara here, the British Sikhs made a vivid effort to tell their faith's story, with photographs and posters explaining Sikhism, a monotheistic religion that originated 500 years ago in the Punjab, a region now divided between India and Pakistan. The exhibit includes a detailed scale model of Sikhism's most revered house of worship, the Golden Temple, in Amritsar, India.

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