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Utah's faith leaders prep to host Dalai Lama, world religions parliament

(Mike Radice/KSL-TV)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Hundreds of Utah’s faithful convened Saturday for an “interactive preview” of the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions, which Salt Lake City will host this October.

“To be able to host the parliament is as great as hosting the Olympics,” said Bridget Cook-Burch, a Catholic-turned-Mormon who attended Saturday’s preview. “It’s about coming together as people in a way that is not about competition, but about collaboration and solving what’s happening on our planet.”

The five-day conference is expected to draw more than 10,000 devotees from 80 countries and 50 faith traditions. Experts predict a $14 million boost to the surrounding economy.

“It is the biggest interfaith event, period,” said Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, chairman of the parliament’s board of trustees.

The imam, who presides over a congregation of 3,000 Chicago Muslims, said the parliament’s impact will reach far beyond the 10,000 predicted attendees.

“The people who come here are all well-connected leaders of communities … who are connected with interfaith alliances, coalitions and whatnot,” Mujahid said. “We bring these people here to share what they are doing in their faith, to learn from other people and then to go back and do their jobs better.”

The parliament is not an event, he said. “It is the building of the interfaith movement.”

Mujahid and other Parliament of the World's Religions board members were welcomed Saturday with speeches from Salt Lake’s respective city and county mayors, Ralph Becker and Ben McAdams, as well as remarks given on behalf of Gov. Gary Herbert by local homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson.

Parliament organizers then took over the “pre-parliament,” as Mujahid called it, engaging diverse attendees in conversations about the upcoming parliament’s major discussion topics.

The October conference will feature more than 300 choices of programs and presentations, each centered on one of three main issues: Climate Change and Care for Creation; War, Violence and Hate Speech; and Wasteful Living and Income Inequality.

To be able to host the parliament is as great as hosting the Olympics. It's about coming together as people in a way that is not about competition, but about collaboration and solving what's happening on our planet.

–Bridget Cook-Burch, attendee

“People of faith, together, are trying to create a just, peaceful, sustainable world,” Mujahid said.

The parliament will also be the first major interfaith gathering to feature a dedicated women’s assembly.

“There has never been an interfaith opportunity for women to come together on this scale,” said Phyllis Curott, the Wiccan priestess who will preside over the assembly. “This has the opportunity to be truly historic.”

Curott said the assembly will discuss a wide range of topics, including the divine feminine, the spiritual gifts of women and the issues women face within their faith communities.

Mishka Banuri, who hopes to become the parliament’s youngest presenter at age 14, said she looks forward to attending the women’s assembly.

“A lot of religions face stereotypes that they don’t allow women to do certain things,” said Mishka, a Muslim. “But I’m very into gender equality, and my brothers are, too.”

Mishka is one of nearly 1,500 who applied to present in October. If selected, she will lead her interfaith group in a “paint dance,” in which dancers will blend together colors to represent interfaith unity.

Curott encouraged Utahns in need of strength or inspiration to attend the parliament this fall.

“You get to experience human beings being the best they can be in a context that, for thousands of years, has brought out the absolute worst,” Curott said. “You see people of every faith persuasion from all over the world respecting one another and appreciating our differences instead of being frightened or intimidated by them.”

“It really gives you a sense of hope,” she said.

Allison Oligschlaeger is currently studying English and Arabic at the University of Utah while completing an internship with the Deseret News. Contact her at


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