In 2018, the Parliament of the World's Religions meeting in Toronto gave OMNIA its prestigious Paul Carus Award for Excellence in Interfaith Action. The award also named two other leaders of OMNIA, Ms. Soraya Deen and Rev. Abare Kallah for their outstanding contributions.

Paul Carus was one of the pioneers of the first ever convening of the world’s religions in Chicago in 1893. An author and publisher, Carus promoted interfaith dialogue and explored the relationship of science and religion. He called himself a theologian rather than a philosopher -- an atheist who loved God! The award was offered by his grandson Blouke Carus a longtime trustee of the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

OMNIA will have a significant presence at the 9th global convening of religious communities in Chicago, August 14-18, 2023. This will be the 130th anniversary of the first-ever such global gathering.

Swami Vivekananda, the famed Indian monk, one of the featured speakers at the 1893 parliament expressed the wish of many, in words that resonate even today:

"Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descen­dant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with vio­lence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal."

I am grateful that I was present at the early planning meetings of what came to known as the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions, many of them held at the Vivekananda Vedanta Society premises in Hyde Park in the late 1980s. I still remember Archbishop Paulos Mar Gregorios Metropolitan of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church speaking at the inaugural service of the Council at Rockefeller Chapel of the University of Chicago in 1989. He challenged us to consider today's phenomenal awareness of religious people among us, a concourse -- an unstoppable movement of people, all going somewhere together -- rather than a parliament, where people gather to talk shop!

I am also grateful that I was able to participate in all the modern Parliament's convenings, but one, and serve on its Board of Trustees for 6 years.

At this Parliament convening, OMNIA has many offerings. If you are able, please join us.

Monday, August 14th: 1:00 -- 2:30 p.m. Hall E, Room 7

Interfaith Peacemaker Teams: A Groundbreaking Method for Interfaith Action (Shanta Premawardhana, Soraya Deen, Baiju Markose, Larry Greenfield)

The rise of religious extremism is fueled by economic disparities, climate change, wars, and many other oppressions and violence. The way we have done "Interfaith Dialogue" seems inadequate to meet the current moment. Interfaith Peacemaker Teams, a movement that combines the best practices of Interfaith Dialogue and Community Organizing is rapidly growing in many parts of Africa and Asia, particularly in places challenged by religious extremism. The method is based on interreligious collaboration, building power, and acting strategically on issues that arise from the ground in their communities. Clear-eyed evaluations of power enable the teams to act solely on issues that are urgent, relevant, and winnable, ensuring victories. Numerous victories result in building social cohesion and strengthening democracy. Leaders of the Interfaith Peacemaker Team movement introduce you to its method and practice. It is a tested method useful to take the interfaith movement forward.

Tuesday, August 15th: 8:00 -- 9:30 a.m. Room E350

Hidden Identities: Patriarchy, Power, and the Forgotten Women of Faith (Soraya Deen, Kate McElwee, Rev. Dr. Evangeline Anderson-Rajkumar, Ven. Maharagama Uppalawanna)

In this session give voice to the struggles of women demanding ordination and religious equity from across the world.

Tuesday, August 15th: 9:00 -- 10:30 a.m. Room E252

Religion and Culture in Conflict and Peace: Impact in Reconciliation and Peacebuilding (Ulrich Nitschke, Shanta Premawardhana)

In a world in which right-wing nationalism and religious extremism is growing, religious narratives are used to justify the “othering of the other”. Since the public identifies religions as the problem, the session provides deep insights in alternatives and peaceful narratives. Particularly, in fragile state contexts religious and traditional leaders fulfill important social roles. Religions are intertwined with governance, politics and development processes and therefore need to be change makers. The focus of this session is sharing contributions of outstanding knowledge in interfaith dialogue and cooperation. Presenters share models and approaches in preventing violent extremism and provide advice on how to promote peaceful and inclusive societies. Yet, engaging with religious and traditional actors can go along with challenges, as their involvement may also contribute to conflict and polarization or they may be perceived as promoting a proselytizing agenda.

Wednesday, August 16th: 4:00 -- 5:30 p.m. Room E451a

Peace Through Interfaith Youth Dialogue: The Hands of Peace Story (Shanta Premawardhana, Emily Kenward, Izzy Randazzo, Zayd Khan)

For 20 years, Hands of Peace has been empowering youth from Israel, Palestine, and the United States to become agents of change. Their journey begins with a three-week, dialogue-based summer program that builds understanding and deep connections across identities, borders, and faiths. This people-to-people approach creates an interconnected network of global citizens committed to advancing equality, freedom, and justice in their own communities. Hear directly from a panel of Hands of Peace alumni as they explore the intersectionality between their Hands of Peace experience and their own faiths. The session is moderated by special guest Shanta Premawardhana of the OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership.

Thursday, August 17th -- 3:00 -- 4:30 p.m. Room E266

New, Hopeful, and Effective Inter-Religious Solutions to the World Food Crisis (Prof. Solomon Katz, Tom O'Donnell, Danielle Nierenberg)

The world is now experiencing the most dire food crisis ever recorded in more than 60 years by the UN FAO. The combination of climate change, COVID-19, and conflict have disrupted national and international checks and balances against hunger. Right now, over 150 million are newly suffering since 2020 from severe food insecurity, including famine. Our session tracks the causes and consequences of this crisis and critically identifies key factors that are amenable to companionate, just, and sustainable solutions through the combined efforts and actions of inter-religious (IR) groups. The orientation of our session is toward the needs of small family farms that produce most of the foods but are in the greatest need and often have the least policy attention. Our session identifies the most promising areas of integrating knowledge and resources from both the small family farm perspectives and the roles of national and international agencies, businesses, and government policymakers.

Thursday, August 17th: 4:00 -- 5:00 p.m. Hall E, Room 1

The War in Ukraine: How the Interfaith Peace Cathedral in Tbilisi Is Working to Change Its Course (Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, Shanta Premawardhana)

Russian exiles who are against the war in Ukraine and who don't want to be conscripted have poured into Tbilisi in massive numbers. The Peace Cathedral initiated Interfaith Peacemaker Teams in partnership with OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership among the Russians. Its collaborative and power-building methods will be very useful to build grassroots political power in Russia when they return to their motherland one day. This will be the best opportunity we have to strengthen democracy in that country which has been under dictatorship for over a century.

Friday, August 18th: 10:30 -- 11:30 a.m. Room E267

Interfaith Peacemaker Teams - An Introductory Training (Shanta Premawardhana, Soraya Deen)

Interfaith Peacemaker Teams are growing across the world. Each team with 20 religious leaders and people of faith learn to collaborate across religions, build power, engage in issues that arise from the ground-up in their communities, and act only on those that are urgent, relevant and winnable. As a result, they usually win. Numerous wins by formerly antagonistic religious communities changes public opinion, builds social cohesion, decreases extremist violence and strengthens democracy. Learn about why Interfaith Peacemaker Teams are important for your community.

Friday, August 18th: 1:00 -- 2:30 p.m. Room E252

Faith-Based Actors and Women’s Rights Activists Must Join to Breakdown Patriarchy (Soraya Deen, Rev. Dr. Evangeline Anderson-Rajkumar, Diana Faust, Shilla Adyero, Rev. Anna York)

Theological reflections and interpretations of sacred texts have for centuries been done only by men. This has led to the proliferation of patriarchal ideas espoused by religions over the centuries. It is time when women are at the table, and have a powerful voice when authoritative doctrines and pronouncements such as fatwas are discussed. In this session, we explore not only the importance of this shift but how it can be accomplished.

Best wishes to our colleagues at the Parliament staff and board in these days of final preparations!

Shanta Premawardhana


Shanta Premawardhana is president of OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership. Prior to OMNIA, he served as the Director for Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. He was also the Associate General Secretary for Interfaith Relations at the National Council of Churches, USA. While serving as pastor of Ellis Avenue Church in Chicago, he engaged in community organizing in the Southside of Chicago. He is an emeritus trustee of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, National Council of Churches, USA, and Common Cause Illinois. He earned his Ph.D. at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.


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