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Canada Parliament of the World’s Religions conference promotes peace amid religious tensions

The halls of Toronto’s convention centre were filled with signs of difference, from monks in purple robes to white-collared priests and a witch in 11th-century regalia. But whatever their religious distinctions, they gathered hoping to leverage the power of faith to tackle intolerance and the urgent threat of a changing climate.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions, a week-long conference, brought together 10,000 people from 80 countries to promote interfaith understanding. Religious tension lies at the heart of many of the world’s conflicts, and congregants said they hoped their presence was an expression of hope for a better future.

The recent mass killing at a Pittsburgh synagogue was on the minds of many as they discussed the need to protect people of faith.

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“This has been a very powerful place to be. Compared to what’s going on in the world, with the violence and anxiety we’ve witnessed recently,” said Rev. Nicoline Guerrier, a Unitarian Universalist minister who lives in Montreal and works in Plattsburgh, N.Y. “It’s a microcosm of how the world could be if we came together in a spirit of curiosity.”

A group of women gather in a circle in the Women's Sacred Space during the Parliament of the World's Religions event, the largest global interfaith gathering at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Nov. 4, 2018.

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Imam Ismail Ulghar spoke of the similarities between Islam and Judaism, and described participating in a ceremony the day before to express solidarity with Toronto’s Jewish community.

“It’s time to come together, work shoulder to shoulder, understand one another and love one another,” he said.

While expressions of interfaith understanding were common, Sunday’s sessions focused on climate change and the need to engage the world’s diverse religious communities in the fight against a warming planet.

Brenda Ekwurzel, who spoke at the conference on Sunday, is the director of climate science at the Union of Climate Scientists. She said she is trying to engage faith groups as allies.

“We realize, as scientists, we can talk about the numbers and the narrowing time frame, the coming decade of decision and how we adapt to the climate change we already have,” she said. “Where we can’t go is what really moves people’s hearts and minds, and that is faith.”

If religious leaders begin to understand the severity of the human cost associated with a warming planet, Ms. Ekwurzel said, they would see that the environment is the scaffolding of human society, without which other goals are impossible. “We need clean air, clean water, and as a human right, we need a habitable human realm,” Ms. Ekwurzel said.

Shih De Yuan, a Buddhist monk who lives in a mostly self-sustaining monastery in Taiwan, said the world could learn from religious teachings to reduce the human impact on our climate. At the monastery, they capture rainwater, use solar panels, reject air conditioning and heating and try wherever possible to repair, recycle and extend the life of their material goods. They also do not eat meat, which tends to come at a higher cost to the climate when compared with a vegetarian diet.

“We hope the way we live can inspire people to change their lifestyle,” Ms. Yuan said.

More than 80 per cent of the world’s people are religious, she said. If faith leaders emphasized the need for action, the impact could be significant.

Jeff Wolfe, a member of the Parliament’s climate action task force who travelled to the conference from Houston, said he is hoping to engage faith communities with a new language that will help them see the need to take action on the environment.

“People of faith care for the next generation. They care for justice. And you can look at climate change as one of the biggest creators of injustice going forward,” he said. “I’m really, really interested in getting faith communities to step up.”

The Parliament also welcomed people of pagan religious faith. Trey Capnerhurst, a traditional witch dressed in green and silver regalia, was trained as a petroleum engineer before she rejected that life in search of a more sustainable way of living.

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