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.
In Barcelona, the parliament took place in a recently developed convention complex on the city's eastern edge, a site where the buildings bear the mark of architects with a flair for striking lines and dramatic angles. Besides the sessions on Islam, attendees faced the daunting task of choosing from a daily menu of lectures and panel discussions that ran the gamut from simple introductions to different religious traditions to searching exchanges on how people might collaborate across faith lines for the common good.
The main attraction to the gurdwara for many was, not surprisingly, the langar, where the arriving crowds were handled with courteous efficiency. Visitors were politely shown racks where they can place their shoes before entering the gurdwara's main hall. Then, after washing their hands, they were directed to places on the carpeted floor, where they sat before plastic plates laid out for the purpose. Sikh men walked down the lines, handing out bottled water and dishing up potato stew, lentils, salad, melon slices and chapatti bread.
Gopinda Kaur, who arranged the exhibition in the gurdwara, said the langar made an easily understood statement about good relations with different religious groups. "If you want lectures, the lectures are over there," she said, indicating the direction of the parliament. The langar "is not lectures, but really just gestures," she said, pantomiming the serving of food.
Clearly, the effort has impressed some people. Rena Lauer, a Princeton University student attending the parliament, described her discovery of the langar as a "happy shock." To her, she said, it suggested that the Sikhs here had "the ability to balance having a very united and secure community with being able to give to everyone without a sense of discrimination."