The first time there was a Jalsa Salana Muslim convention in Toronto, it was possible to fit all the attendees into a single photograph.
That was 42 years ago, when perhaps 1,000 people from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community attended.
This weekend, there are more than 20,000 visitors packing the International Centre in Mississauga, including some 200 cooks and an assortment of politicians, including federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, federal Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt and Brampton Mayor Linda Jeffrey.
It is now the longest running and largest Muslim event in Canada, and its doors are open to everyone.
“Our community in Canada was very small when I came,” said Lal Khan Malik, 77, national president of Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at, on Saturday at the International Convention Centre.
“The growth of our community in Canada is not natural,” he added. “It (growth) has been due to the persecution of our community in Pakistan.”
Malik moved to Canada in 1987 as a refugee fleeing persecution in Pakistan. He now lives in Maple, Ont.
This weekend’s convention includes speeches, lectures and discussions. Past attendees have included Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former prime minister Stephen Harper.
The Convention Centre attracts attendees from across Canada, Europe, the U.S., Pakistan and India. Many visitors stay in the homes of Canadian attendees.
This year, there was added excitement to the event as the group’s spiritual leader, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad of England, was on hand to unveil nine principles of peace intended to reach out to people of all faith communities.
The nine principles are recognition of the Creator, global unity, pursuit of absolute justice, a rejection of extremism, loyalty to one’s home country, a call for nuclear disarmament, the elimination of weapons profiteering, the need for economic equity and the eradication of poverty and a call for service to mankind.
“None of these principles asks you to be a Muslim,” Malik said.
National Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at spokesperson Safwan Choudhry, 30, said the “pathway to peace” principles have practical value.
“We believe that this will take us to real peace and not just rhetoric,” Choudhry said, noting that #pathwaytopeace got more 1,000 followers on its first day this weekend.
Malik said he moved to Canada as a young father of three after religious-based attacks against himself and his family in the city of Faisal Abad in Pakistan. He speaks fondly of his love for Canada and its freedoms.
“The greatest blessing of God is freedom,” Malik said. “Freedom to worship and freedom to preach. Every day I am indebted to God. If you look around the world — even if you look south — then you will appreciate what is good in Canada.”
As for Canada’s neighbours to the south, he declined to get into any Donald Trump-bashing, saying only, “Our slogan is love for all, hatred for none.”
He would, however, prefer the media and general public not use the term “Muslim terrorist.”
“It hurts,” Malik said. “Every time a crime takes place, you are afraid. Please stop labelling perpetuators of crime with their faith. They may be mentally ill … no religion teaches violence. When they engage in violence they have left their religion behind.”
He said he fell in love with Canada the first time he visited the country. Asked what he loves most, he said: “The freedom, the acceptance. Most of the people in Canada are peaceful. They accept each other’s faiths. Unfortunately, this is not happening around the world.”
Malik, who had worked in telecommunications in Pakistan and now fills his time as a full-time community volunteer, said the nine principles of peace are an attempt to appeal to the hearts of people, regardless of where they live or what their faith may be.
“Politicians are guided by people,” Malik said. “They are not leaders. They are followers. We want to approach the hearts of people.”
Meral Choudhry, 24, of Vaughan, said the principles of peace are sorely needed.
“”We’re really at a verge of world war,” she said. “Every country needs this message.”