OTTAWA – The spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims has told the Parliament he wants Canada to join him in making the world a more tolerant, peaceful place.
“Canada is a leader in the community of nations,” the 77-year-old Aga Khan told a joint meeting of MPs and senators.
He was welcomed with repeated standing ovations in the packed House of Commons. The audience in the galleries included many Ismaili Muslim representatives invited for the occasion.
The Harvard-educated religious leader spoke elegantly in both official languages, mixing humour and history as he offered a solemn plea for peace in a badly divided world.
He opened by paying tribute to Canada’s recent gold-medal Olympic hockey victories and joked that, as an honorary Canadian citizen, he would have liked to have played for the team.
“The Dalai Lama and I would have been a formidable defence.”
The Aga Khan, hereditary holder of his religious office, is a regular visitor to Canada, with his most recent trips coming in 2008 and 2010.
He was granted honorary Canadian citizenship during the 2010 visit.
He said his foundation would help Canada celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2017.
The Aga Khan made a plea for greater understanding of the world’s Muslims saying how they are viewed in the world is shaped by “the lens of war.”
He lamented the growing divisions among Shia and Sunni Muslims around the world especially in war zones such as a Iraq and elsewhere, saying those differences are not based not on any profound differences in religious faith.
“It is becoming a disaster,” he said.
He also said the world needs to pay more attention to the role of civil society, saying it represents “voices for change where change is overdue … voices of hope for people living in fear.”
Religious intolerance and hostility seems to be on the rise around the world and can be countered by vigorous civil society, he argued.
He also commended Harper for establishing an Office of Religious Freedom, saying it could be a model for other countries.
He closed by quoting a verse from the Qur’an saying the human race was born from a “single soul” — again inspiring another sustained standing ovation.
His speech followed a private meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper following his morning arrival on Parliament Hill.
Harper introduced him as a tireless humanitarian, lauding him for development partnerships in Africa, Asia and in Afghanistan.
“When you are in Canada, you are home,” Harper said.
Harper, who sat in rapt attention throughout the speech, lauded the Aga Khan saying his advocacy for tolerance and pluralism has gone “beyond words.”
Harper also thanked the Aga Khan for his support to his child and maternal health initiative that he launched in 2010.
“Canadians are strongest when we have the support of those who share our values,” Harper said.
“Your highness I value your counsel and your friendship.”
The Aga Khan became the 49th Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims in 1957, when he succeeded his grandfather.
He oversees a number of foundations which run development projects around the world.
There are about 100,000 Shia Ismaili Muslims in Canada.