Appeal for tolerance at Parliament of the World's Religions

December 11, 2009
Dr. Natalie Mobini of the Australian Baha’i community speaks about religious tolerance at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne. The session was devoted to religious conflict and persecution in Myanmar, Thailand, and Iran. At left is Dr. Helen James of the Australian National University, who also spoke.

MELBOURNE, Australia — How can interfaith dialogue and religious freedom flourish when one religion declares that another is not a religion? Are tolerance and cooperation only possible among people who share the same doctrinal view of the world?

These questions were posed by a representative of the Australian Baha'i community at one of the sessions at the Parliament of the World's Religions, which has come to an end after a week of speeches, panel discussions, devotional programs, and artistic presentations.

Dr. Natalie Mobini made her remarks during a 30-minute presentation on the fifth day of the parliament, within a session on religious conflict and persecution that focused on Myanmar, Thailand, and Iran.

Reflecting on the origins of the interfaith movement – in particular the first Parliament of Religions in 1893 – Dr. Mobini related how its principal organizer believed that it had "emancipated the world from bigotry."

"The interfaith movement has continued to be inspired by the vision of a world in which the followers of different faiths are able not merely to engage with one another in a spirit of tolerance and respect but also to collaborate in contributing to the advancement of society," she said

"At the same time, the havoc that religious intolerance is continuing to wreak in our world now poses a more serious threat to humanity's progress and well-being than at any previous time in history."

Gary Sterling sings a passage from the writings of Baha’u’llah at the opening ceremony of the parliament. (BWNS photographs by Rachael Dere) Slideshow
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Gary Sterling sings a passage from the writings of Baha’u’llah at the opening ceremony of the parliament. (BWNS photographs by Rachael Dere)

Dr. Mobini explored how the interfaith movement might encourage mutual respect and cooperation among the followers of all religions and beliefs. She asked how dialogue can occur when one religion attempts to delegitimize another because of underlying theological differences.

In the case of Iran, the results of such an attitude have included the imprisonment of the Baha'i community's leaders, the desecration of its cemeteries, and the destruction of its holy places.

Referring to the Islamic government of Iran denying that the Baha'i Faith is a religion, Dr. Mobini asked, "Is this not the same as the past, when Christianity claimed that Islam is not a true religion?"

"And when the machinery of the state is used for the purpose of eliminating that religion, the challenge moves into sharper focus," she said.

The lives lost during the crusades highlighted the prejudice that colored the attitudes of Christians towards Muslims in past centuries because Christianity did not recognize Islam as a "divine" religion, she noted.

"Christians today have, however, been able to transcend that intolerance without compromising their own theological beliefs and engage in interreligious dialogue with Muslims with an open-minded spirit. The world needs to learn from this."

Dr. Mobini cited examples of Islamic and other religious leaders who have held respectful dialogue and collaborated with others in spite of theological differences.

"Should not everyone seek to find within the particular framework of his or her beliefs how to set aside exclusionist claims in order to collaborate with followers of religions whose beliefs are different?" she asked.

In the case of Iran, the Baha'i Faith does not need to be recognized as "divine" in origin, said Dr. Mobini, "but simply asks that the fact of its existence be accepted and the rights of its followers upheld."

Responding to a question from the audience about what action individuals can take to combat such instances of human rights abuses, she replied that the support of the interfaith movement was appreciated. She said that the transformation of attitudes begins at the grass roots and urged individuals to take the spirit of the parliament back to their communities.

More than 5,000 people from some 80 countries attended the parliament, which ran from December 3 to 9. Some 70 members of the Baha'i community played an active role in the proceedings, including participating in panel discussions with members of other religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam as well as indigenous faiths and traditions.

"It is evident that growing numbers of people are coming to realize that the truth underlying all religions is in its essence one," Dr. Mobini said.

"This is the challenge of all of us here and to all who desire to overcome religious intolerance and hatred: how to live up to a 'golden rule' that is at the heart of each of the world's religions; urging us to treat the followers of other faiths as we ourselves would wish to be treated."