SALT LAKE CITY — On his recent visit to Utah, Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid walked briskly through the Salt Palace Convention Center, taking mental notes of the preparations for the upcoming Parliament of the World's Religions.
In less than two weeks, some 10,000 devotees of 50 faith traditions from 80 countries are expected to fill the halls of the convention facility for the largest interfaith event in the world.
Previous host cities for the event have included Chicago; Cape Town, South Africa; Barcelona; and Melbourne, Australia. This year, the fifth parliament since its first appearance more than 120 years ago in 1893 will be held in the city that is headquarters to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Parliament is coming here because we're open to all people, to all religions, all faiths," said Imam Mujahid, chairman of the parliament’s board of trustees and the first Muslim to be elected to the position.
Some 7,500 people have already registered for the event, and only a handful cancelled after learning His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet would not be able to attend. The Dalai Lama, 80, is under doctors' care at The Mayo Clinic and has been advised to clear his October schedule and rest.
Imam Mujahid said he was able to visit him in Rochester, Minn. on Tuesday and he appeared to be in good spirits.
"He was fully aware at this moment that it's important to listen to doctors, but he was kind enough to spend a whole hour with me and we recorded an extraordinarily good interview as well as a short talk. It has some amazing information in there. We're keeping it a secret and we're going to release it at the time slot he was supposed to speak here," Imam Mujahid said.
While attendees will miss hearing from the Dalai Lama in person, Imam Mujahid said the agenda for the five-day conference is packed with talks and training sessions led by leaders in faith, thought and social justice from throughout the world.
Among the featured speakers are two Nobel Peace Prize winners, former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias Sanchez and peace activist and native of Northern Ireland Mairead Maguire, co-founder of Peace People.
In the face of civil wars and pro-communist revolutions in the 1970s and 1980s, Arias negotiated accords that resulted in peace within Costa Rica and the region.
Maguire has spent her life dedicated to mobilizing peace movements in Northern Ireland and around the globe.
Other planned speakers include world-renowned primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall; Chief Arvol Lookinghorse, spiritual leader of all three branches of the Sioux tribe; Utah native Terry Tempest Williams, author, conservationist and activist; and the Rev. Jim Wallis, founder and editor of Sojourners magazine.
While some people attend the parliament to hear from global leaders and participate in dialogue with people of other faith traditions, the agenda also includes training sessions for people who lead interfaith groups or coalitions in their own communities or countries, Imam Mujahid said.
Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable, which works locally to achieve interfaith respect, dialogue and collaboration to overcome religious division, has assisted with the preparations for the parliament by helping to plan 12 rooms that represent the world's major faiths. Some will be dedicated places of prayer and contemplation, such as the room representing the Muslim faith. Others will feature displays of symbols and objects unique to their particular faiths and rituals.
The Roundtable is also responsible for Sacred Music Night, a tribute to be conducted in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Sunday evening.
"That will be a spectacular affair with many, many musical, prayer, chanting, dancing acts representing different religions from all over the world," said Josie Stone, vice chairman of Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable.
Stone said the two projects have been ambitious undertakings for the all-volunteer organization, which started in the run-up to the 2002 Winter Games.
Faith rooms are a new undertaking for the parliament, so there is no blueprint or example to follow, Stone said. Volunteers have been coming up with various ideas to drive traffic to the rooms "so visitors can learn a little bit about each religion represented," she said.
The rooms also will give participants of respective faiths and beliefs a place to reflect, pray or meet people of like beliefs.
Other Utah faith communities and individuals will take part in the parliament by offering presentations, creating static displays about their respective faiths and their histories.
The event begins Oct. 15 with a dedicated women's assembly and concludes Oct. 19.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker will join Elder L. Whitney Clayton, of the LDS Church's First Quorum of the Seventy, in ceremonies to welcome parliament participants.
The Right Rev. Scott Hayashi, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, is scheduled to offer a presentation.
The Sikh Community of Utah will provide Langar, a free communal meal, each day of the conference.
"That a very generous thing they're doing. They're doing it for everybody, every day," Stone said.
Meanwhile, Mishka and Kiyan Banuri, 14-year-old twins who are students at Rowland Hall, will become the youngest presenters at the parliament when they and other Utah youths representing an array of faiths offer a multimedia and dance presentation.
While presenters and attendees will be coming from all over the world, Imam Mujahid said Utahns are encouraged to register and take part in a powerful experience of learning more about other faiths and talking to people with different beliefs about the issues of the day.
After the 2009 parliament in Melbourne, Australia, surveys of youths in attendance indicated "the experience of the parliament was more important for us than any particular program. It is worth experiencing. People know, through headlines, the conflict of religions. When people come here, they will see the love, relationship and respect of religions," Imam Mujahid said.
For many attendees, the experience deepens their own faith yet opens their eyes to beliefs of others, he said.
As Imam Mujahid travels around world in his capacity as chairman, he has observed that national and local governments have a growing appreciation of how interfaith groups work together for common good.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 storm that hit the upper Gulf Coast in 2005, faith-based organizations were first responders providing shelter, supplies and food to people displaced by the hurricane and massive flooding. In Mississippi, faith-based groups operated more than half of the shelters established after the storm. In Houston, Muslims fed 28,000 people a day.
Muslims and United Methodist relief organizations remained partners working on recovery efforts five years after Katrina.
Whether it is the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable working on issues of common concern in Utah or the parliament's interfaith efforts to address issues on a global scale, there is tremendous value in meeting people where they are, getting past the fear of the unknown and working for the common good, Imam Mujahid said.
"Once we meet, shake hands and talk to one another, we're improving humanity," he said.
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