International religious leaders meeting in Britain have just ended a three-day ecumenical gathering during which they made scores of long-term environmental commitments that could shape the behavior of the faithful around the globe for generations to come.
The event at Windsor Castle near London, organized by the Britain-based Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) and the United Nations, was attended by some 200 representatives from nine major religions -- Baha'ism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Shintoism, Sikhism, and Taoism.
ARC Secretary-General Martin Palmer tells RFE/RL that the event, titled a Celebration of Faiths and the Environment, was a "huge success."
"No religious organization -- and we had over 60 different religious organizations -- came here unless they had made a commitment to work on the environment," Palmer says.
"That meant a commitment to deal with [their] land, purchasing policies, investments, school networks, commitments such as the Muslims committing that the hajj -- the annual pilgrimage -- would go green within the next three years. And that was paralleled by commitments from the UN, the World Bank, major secular environmental groups that they would now partner with the world's religions."
Unveiling a Muslim seven-year action plan on the environment, the grand mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Goma’a, said it was “a religious duty to safeguard our environment and advocate the importance of preserving it.”
Palmer says the Muslim plan was “perhaps the most astonishing” one presented at Windsor Castle.
“First and foremost, it establishes a new purchasing program for Muslims. So if you follow the traditional law of what you can or cannot eat, it has to be free range, organic, local. If you're going to use energy, it should now come from renewable sources," Palmer says.
It was announced that the 10 most sacred cities in Islam will become green within the next five years. I could go on. It's enormous.
"And it was announced that the 10 most sacred cities in Islam will become green within the next five years. I could go on. It's enormous."
Given that the world's 1.5 billion Muslims make up around one-quarter of the world's population, the potential impact is great.
The Muslim plan envisages eco-labeling systems for goods and services, ranging from organized pilgrimages to printing Korans on environmentally friendly paper, since as many as 15 million Korans are printed each year. Under the plan, the training of imams would include compulsory teaching on environmentally friendly practices and programs.
An umbrella organization, the Muslim Associations for Climate Change Action (MACCA), is to monitor the action plan, which was earlier endorsed by more than 50 Muslim scholars in Istanbul in July.
Despite the complexity of implementation, Palmer expresses optimism.
“Probably Islam is the [religion] where if [something] can be proved to be Islamic, then it will almost certainly be the practice of, if not the majority, then a highly significant minority," he says.
Addressing the gathering, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said religions are in a "unique" position to influence discussions on global warming, and he urged faith leaders to play a vital role in inspiring politicians to act "more courageously" at next month's critical Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.
"We have know-how, we have resources, but the only vacuum is political will," Ban said. "You can inspire, you can provoke, you can challenge your leaders, through your wisdom, through your followers.”Reduced Expectations
The Windsor event comes just one month before more than 15,000 officials from 192 countries are expected to attend a UN conference in Copenhagen to try to reach an agreement to replace provisions of the Kyoto Protocol., which expires in 2012.
The Kyoto Protocol requires industrialized countries to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions that cause global warming to 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.
But UN officials have already signaled that they have reduced their expectations about reaching agreement on a new treaty to slow global warming.
Obstacles to a deal include emission reduction targets for key industrialized countries -- notably the United States, the world’s second-largest emitter behind China -- as well as financing for poorer nations to adapt to climate change and to curb their own greenhouse gas emissions.
But according to Palmer, environmental issues should not be left solely to governments.
“Civil society has to play a role in addressing environmental crises, whatever the governments do," he says. "And it is going to be more and more the job of civil society, the religions, the schools, the voluntary associations, the media, who will actually be able to take these issues to the wider public, and to involve the wider public in making their own decisions about what should be done."
ARC says what the world's religious bodies, which reach out to an estimated 85 percent of the world’s population, do or don’t do with their assets and their influence matters a great deal.
According to ARC, faith-based groups are major land owners, controlling 7 to 8 per cent of the habitable land surface on Earth. They have vast media networks, are major providers of health and education, are involved in more than half of all schools worldwide and control more than 7 percent of international financial investments.