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Nobody does pageantry like people of faith and that was decidedly on display Thursday night as the 2015 Parliament of the World's Religions opened with a lengthy processional at the Salt Palace in downtown Salt Lake City.
Chiefs from seven American Indian tribes, wearing traditional feathered headdresses and fur cloaks, led the way to the podium as a drum circle accompanied their steps.
They were followed by men and women dressed in the attire of their religions all-white tunics, black tunics, black suits with white collars, maroon-and-mustard robes, saris, black-and-red robes, and holy headgear of every kind including kippahs, turbans and headscarves.
Thousands of participants watched – some snapping photos with cellphones – as the procession winded its way to the front of the interfaith lovefest.
From the stage, Ute and Piute tribal leaders welcomed the visitors from 50 religions and 80 countries.
Next came Imam Malik Mujahid, the conference chairman, who enthusiastically opened the sixth Parliament of the World's Religions.
"This is our time the world is coming closer in the global village," Mujahid said. "Let's bring hearts and minds together. That is the interfaith movement. Are you with me?" The crowd filling the exhibition hall roared back their affirmation.
Utah officials, including Gov. Gary Herbert, Mayors Ralph Becker and Ben McAdams, and LDS official L. Whitney Clayton newly appointed president of the Quorum of the Seventy joined speakers from several other faiths in offering their greetings and prayers for harmony and goodwill.
Utah's The Rev. Patty Willis of South Valley Unitarian Universalist Church wrote lyrics about spirituality of the earth for a piece composed specifically for this gathering by Utah-based composer Mary Lou Prince. She performed the hymn and led the crowd in singing along.
Nearly 10,000 people are in Salt Lake City through Monday to dream out loud about a better world.
But the real fruit of the conference will be seen when they go home, organizers say.
"We're not going to leave it in Salt Lake City," said Larry Greenfield, vice chairman of the group. "We're going to take it home."
The five-day conference is being held in the United States for the first time since 1993. It began in 1893 in Chicago, resumed a century later and since has been held in such cities as Cape Town, South Africa, and Melbourne, Australia.
The idea of the conference is to bring together people of diverse religions to talk about what works and does not work in trying to solve problems such as war, hatred, climate change, wasteful consumption and income inequality.
Many of those attending are activists, and they hope to influence civic groups, governments, nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations.
"Religions have to be engaged in the world," said Greenfield, who is an ordained minister with American Baptist Churches U.S.A.
Janaan Hashim, a defense attorney in Chicago and parliament board member, said the meeting has a ripple effect.
"Who are we to tell people in Turkey how to solve their problems? Or people in California?" Hashim asked. "But it's very realistic to have those people come here, to wrap their heads around these ideas and take that back home with them."
Phyllis Curott, vice chairwoman of the parliament, said, "To some extent, we're preaching to the choir. But it reverberates."
Curott, a Wiccan priestess who lives in New York, oversaw the first daylong women's assembly, which attracted 3,500 attendees Thursday.
The session was a big step forward, she said. At the first World Parliament of Religions (the conference's original name) in 1893, 19 of the 200 people who spoke were women, she said. "It was unusual for women to be given the platform at that time."
At this year's gathering, 60 percent of those attending are women and half of the presenters are women.
"Religion is really the last area, the last realm of human relationships to open itself to the wisdom of women," she said. "And that's changing."
Mujahid said governments are beginning to take notice of the parliament and its message of interfaith respect.
They're beginning to create interfaith bureaus or agencies, he said.
It's because faith communities, working together, can do much good, Mujahid said, noting what happened along the Gulf of Mexico 10 years ago. Interfaith groups were helping Hurricane Katrina victims before and after the government was there to lend assistance.
"Sometimes people confuse interfaith with dialogue of the preachers," he said. "Interfaith is neighbors working with other neighbors. And neighborly relations are encouraged by all religious communities."
Bhai Sahib Satpal Singh Khalsa, the ambassador of the Sikh religion in the United States, said the parliament is a chance to have interfaith dialogue.
"Interfaith is going to play the most important role in peace-building," he said. "The whole world is looking for peace."
Swami Chidanand Saraswati, a Hindu and president of one of India's largest interfaith institutions, said it's important for the world's religions to convey a message to the world.
"Having one team and one theme sends a message: We are one, we are one family."
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