VANCOUVER (CP) -- Thousands of people from across North America got a rare glimpse of their Ismaili spiritual leader Friday as the Aga Khan addressed followers in a private service that was to be focused on compassion and charitable works.
Farid Damji, a spokesman for the gathering that attracted about 20,000 people to the Trade and Convention Centre, said Ismaili Muslims revere the Aga Khan for his emphasis on improving the lives of those in need.
"Everybody's really excited to see him," Damji said. "It doesn't happen very often and it's a unique opportunity, so we're celebrating that."
Damji said the service, scheduled to last about 45 minutes, included recitations from the Koran, along with a message from the Aga Khan, a billionaire philanthropist in his late 60s who lives near Paris.
"Commonly he speaks about general values and principles, things that the Ismaili community takes to heart in terms of ethics in action, in terms of the value in education and the importance of making a meaningful contribution to not just where we live in society but the globe overall," Damji said.
The Aga Khan, who earlier this week was invested as an honorary companion of the Order of Canada, is revered as the 49th direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed by about 15 million followers worldwide.
Followers came from across Western Canada and the United States to attend Friday's service. Some people were lining up for hours before he spoke.
The Aga Khan's visit to Vancouver -- and earlier to Ottawa and Toronto -- was kept generally low-key because Ismailis consider their faith a private affair.
Instead, they highlight their good works, especially in developing countries.
The Aga Khan Development Network, a group of private, non-denominational agencies launched in 1967, has branches in 30 countries.
In Canada, home to about 75,000 Ismaili Muslims, the foundation has partnered with the Canadian International Development Agency to support projects in Asia and Africa for over 20 years.
Samin Abdulla, spokeswoman for the network based in Chantilly, France, said the Aga Khan considers Canada to be a role model for pluralism and has chosen Ottawa as the home of a new global centre for pluralism.
"A lot of Ismaili communities and other communities had been expelled from Uganda in the '70s and Canada was really kind enough to open their arms," Abdulla said.
The Aga Khan has been leader of the Ismailis since 1957.
The foundation has opened universities in several countries, including Pakistan, India, central Asia and Africa, Abdulla said, adding education was also close to the heart of the Aga Khan's grandfather.
"We've got a school in east Africa that's now 100 years old so this is something that's a long, long tradition."
© Canadian Press 2005