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Parliament of the World's Religions hopes to show people the good that faith can do

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One of the world's biggest interfaith gatherings is set to take place in Chicago next week. It's the Parliament of the World's Religions. The meeting comes at a time when belief is often seen as a force that divides. But as NPR religion correspondent Jason DeRose reports, its progressive organizers want to send a different message.

JASON DEROSE, BYLINE: This will be Anila Ali's first Parliament of the World's Religions. She traces her interest in the interfaith movement to scripture.

ANILA ALI: God says in the Quran to Muslims, I have created you into tribes, different tribes, so that you may get to know each other.

DEORSE: Know each other in deep rather than superficial ways, which is why Ali, who is the president of the American Muslim and Multifaith Women's Empowerment Council, is speaking on women and Islam. She says that topic is usually marked by stereotypes rather than knowledge.

ALI: And Islam came at a point in Arabia where girls were being buried alive. Islam came to liberate women. It was a modern, progressive religion, and a lot of the teachings have been stolen.

DEORSE: Stolen, she says, by religious radicals.

ALI: And I feel that it's time we set the record straight.

DEORSE: When she joined some 10,000 participants from more than 80 countries and 200 religious traditions. The meeting has its origins back in 1893, when the first Parliament of the World's Religions took place as part of the World's Fair, known as the Columbian Exposition. It's viewed as the birth of the modern interfaith movement, which holds that different religions have something to learn from each other.

MICHAEL BERNARD BECKWITH: So you're not living a life of fear, doubt and worry. You're living a life being pulled by a vision and being inspired by that vision to make a difference on the planet.

DEORSE: Chicago will be Michael Bernard Beckwith's fourth Parliament. He's the founder of Agape International Spiritual Center in Los Angeles. What he's most looking forward to is a symposium on global ethics. The hope is to discuss and sign a document that outlines what Beckwith calls a moral compass.

BECKWITH: We want to commit ourselves to a culture of nonviolence and respect for life, a culture of solidarity and a just economic order, a culture of life and truthfulness in this time of fake news, a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women, a culture of sustainability and care for the Earth.

PHYLLIS CUROTT: We recognize that we are creating the world as we wish it to be.

DEORSE: Phyllis Curott serves as the Parliament's program chair. The Wiccan priestess says this year's theme, A Call to Conscience: Defending Freedom and Human Rights, is close to her heart.

CUROTT: My hope is that the individuals who attend will come out of it awake, enlightened as to the crisis that we are all facing, this global crisis, this scourge of authoritarianism and the threat that it poses to each of us both individually and collectively to our freedom, to our human rights, to our freedom to practice our faith, whatever it is.

DEORSE: But it is sometimes difficult, says Parliament executive director Stephen Avino, for people to see the good that religions do, given how people use faith to abridge the rights of others based on race or gender or sexual orientation.

STEPHEN AVINO: I think the biggest hurdle is that people have been using religion to cause harm, and it has turned people away from religion in general.

DEORSE: Despite that reality, there is still hope, says Muslim women's advocate Anila Ali.

ALI: I have always believed that religion is a very powerful tool, that it is also like fire.

DEORSE: Depending on who wields it, Ali says, religion can bring destruction, or it can bring light. Jason DeRose, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KACEY MUSGRAVES SONG, "OH, WHAT A WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jason DeRose
Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.