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Parliament of the World's Religions in Salt Lake 'best ever,' chairman says

Group announces plans to meet every two years instead of five

SALT LAKE CITY — The 2015 Parliament of the World's Religions came to a close Monday with leaders of the largest interfaith gathering revealing plans to conduct a gathering every two years.

In the closing plenary Monday afternoon, Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, outgoing chairman of the Parliament's board of trustees, said people he met during the five-day event frequently stopped him to tell him the same thing: "This was the best Parliament ever."

"Wait until you see 2017. Parliament will be every two years now," he said. The location for the next gathering has not yet been determined but holding the event bienally is a significant change from conducting it every five years.

The closing ceremonies also included prayer, music and reflections on the Parliament, which for the first time offered a Women's Assembly.

Rachel S. Mikva, a rabbi and professor of Jewish studies at Chicago Theological Seminary, said the experience of Parliament "has been very much like Yom Kippur, day of atonement when we work on becoming the human beings we were created to be."

Mikva said she felt an "amazing sense of solidarity" with others in attendance and she has a long "to-do list" to address issues of poverty, violence and sustainability when she goes home.

Several speakers at the concluding event thanked the host city for its hospitality, some 1,000 volunteers who covered 3,000 shifts and Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable for its efforts as the local organizing committee.

Others used their time at the lectern to challenge people who attended Parliament to turn what they had learned into action in their own communities to overcome poverty and fight for justice.

H.H. Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, president of Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh, one of India’s largest interfaith spiritual institutions, said the work of the interfaith movement is needed worldwide.

There is a shortage of food, clean water and arable land across the globe. "If there’s any shortage, there’s a global consciousness shortage," he said.

Sheikh Omar Suleiman, scholar in residence at Valley Ranch Islamic Center in Dallas, said Parliament extends an opportunity for attendees to not just respect one another but to get to know one another in a deeper, more personal way.

“We can wish well for one another. We can pray for one another. We can try to make sure that everyone enjoys the rights that we want to enjoy. We can collectively try to offer to people meaning in this life because the most dangerous person in the world is someone who has nothing to live for," he said.

All people of faith struggle to pass on their peaceful traditions to their children but they must, Suleiman said.

"When we hate one another or we allow hate to go unchecked within our congregations, then we only reinforce to those upcoming generations that religion is not worth it. What we need to do is teach them that religion has meaning, that God has meaning and that the extremists of the world that act in the name of religion, they’re not guided by the light, they’re blinded by the light."

Earlier Monday, Tibetan Buddhist monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery put the final touches on an intricate mandala sand painting they had assembled throughout the event.

Later in the day, the mandala was quickly dismantled, part of the ritual to help people appreciate the impermanence of all that exists, said Geshe Loden, a Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader.

The issues that trouble people from day to day are fleeting. Knowing this people can live lives that are happy and less stressed, he said.

The Rev. Fr. Elias Koucos, chairman of Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable, said many Roundtable volunteers devoted countless hours to projects that enhance the Parliament, such as creating faith rooms representing the major religions of the world and producing Sunday's night of sacred music held at the Salt Lake Tabernacle.

"It's been a tremendous event. It's so uplifting and inspirational to meet and greet so many different faith traditions and people. It's great to see that diversity here and share in some of the common things we have and know we can still disagree on other things as well but not make that a stumbling block or hinderance in coming together," said the Rev. Fr. Koucos, head priest of Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church.

Members of Utah's Sikh community and Sikhs around the world provided thousands of complimentary meals to Parliament attendees each day of the event.

"Who says there no free lunch in America?" said Imam Mujahid in offering his thanks to Sikhs who donated food, prepared it and served thousands of meals each day.

On the event's last day, thousands of pounds of food from the langar was donated to the Utah Food Bank and Catholic Community Services' St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall.

Catholic Community Services spokeswoman Danielle Stamos said the nonprofit organization serves 1,200 meals to homeless and low-income people each day so the donation by the Sikh community was a boon to its efforts.

"The Parliament is about bringing together people of all different religions and backgrounds. It's really cool to see at the end of it all their focus is helping other people in need," Stamos said.

The Rev. Fr. Koucos said as Parliament concluded, he was mindful of the importance of interfaith gatherings.

"We need to learn to live together in harmony and not let anything come in our way as far as recognizing we are all human, we are from the same creator and we need to learn to live together and not let religion or politics come into play as far as showing love, respect and dignity to all humans," he said.