In 1893, in the city of Chicago, a “World’s Parliament of Religions” was held as an auxiliary event in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exhibition (World’s Fair). This event marked the first official gathering of representatives from eastern and western religions and is considered the birthplace of formal interreligious dialogue.
It was at one of the sessions of that first Parliament that Reverend George A. Ford, a Syrian missionary, read a paper written by Rev. Henry H. Jessup, Director of Presbyterian Missionary Operations in North Syria, describing “a famous Persian Sage,” Baha’u'llah, who had recently died in Akka, Palestine. This presentation was the first time the Baha’i Faith was mentioned in a public talk in North America. For this reason, the Parliament of the World’s Religions has a special place in the hearts of American Baha’is.
From this humble beginning eventually grew the American Baha’i community. Fourteen years later, in 1907, there were more than 1,000 members of the Baha’i Faith in North America. They organized and purchased property in Wilmette, Ill., just north of Chicago, and made plans to build what is now the magnificent Baha’i House of Worship for the North American Continent. (Read more on how the Baha’i Temple came to be in Wilmette.)
In 1993, on the 100th anniversary of the first Parliament, some 8,000 people from all religions came together in Chicago to commemorate the anniversary and to establish the Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Since then, gatherings were held in South Africa in 1999 and in Barcelona, Spain in 2004. Baha’is have been involved in all four modern Parliaments, as organizers, participants, and presenters. (Read the Baha’i World News Service story on Baha’i participation in the 2004 Parliament.)
The 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions will take place December 3 through December 9 in Melbourne, Australia. Based on attendance at previous events, the Melbourne Parliament is expected to bring together 8,000 to 12,000 people to address key topics, including: Healing the Earth with Care and Concern; Securing Food and Water for All People; and Building Peace in Pursuit of Justice.
More than a century ago, Baha’u'llah told Baha’is to “Consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship.” And Baha’is have been active in promoting interfaith dialogue and understanding since the mid-1800s.
A number of American Baha’is plan to participate in the 2009 Parliament, including Brian Lepard — an international human rights law specialist and Law Alumni Professor of Law at the University of Nebraska. Lepard is the author of a number of books including Hope for a Global Ethic: Shared Principles in Religious Scriptures and In the Glory of the Father: The Baha’i Faith and Christianity by Baha’i Publishing.
Lepard is planning to present “A Baha’i Perspective on the Right to Development” at the Parliament and has also been invited to offer a Baha’i perspective in a panel on the adoption of a “Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the World’s Religions.”
Lepard is excited about participating in the Parliament because “it exemplifies one of the main themes of Baha’u'llah’s teachings – bringing about greater unity and understanding among people of diverse faiths and beliefs.” He goes on to explain, “I have sought in my personal and professional life to promote this teaching, which is sorely needed in a world riven by religiously-based conflict.”
Participating at the Parliament is also an opportunity for him, as a specialist in law, to interact and collaborate with participants from other fields, including religion, philosophy, and ethics. “My academic work as a law professor and legal scholar has attempted to integrate law with these other disciplines, and to draw insights from ethical principles shared by the world’s great religious traditions.”