international symposium on green and accessible pilgrimage next week, where participants will learn about environmental sustainability practices from environmentalists and historical pilgrim sites around the globe.
The Green Pilgrimage Network (GPN) conference, created by Jerusalem’s Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur, will take place at the capital’s YMCA from April 21-26 and feature faith leaders, non-profit organizations, academics, elected officials, and tourism and hospitality industry entrepreneurs.
“The idea is at once grand and simple, since while there is nothing new in pilgrimage, the idea of a ‘global pilgrim partnership’ is an entirely new concept,” said Tsur.
“[It] sets goals for urban sustainability and economic growth on the one hand, and for interfaith dialogue on the other.”
Indeed, she said, interfaith dialogue will play a key role in the GPN’s success.
“Even though [different religions] may not agree on most subjects, one thing they can agree on is creating a greener city and attracting more pilgrims,” she said.
“Jews, Christians and Muslims from all over the world have made their way to Jerusalem. It’s this triple identity that provides a special challenge on the one hand, and a remarkable opportunity on the other.”
This will be the first green pilgrimage conference for Deirdre Shurland, a senior consultant at the United Nations Environment Program- Division of Technology, Industry and Economics.
To Shurland, pilgrimage is “a very important reason as to why any travelers would go to a destination,” just like entertainment, food and other cultural elements.
“This is at the very heart of what the essence of tourism is,” said Shurland, who also serves as coordinator for the Global Partnership for Sustainable Tourism and has 20 years of experience in tourism sustainability and environmental management in the Caribbean.
Pilgrimage is simply a “subset” of tourism, and in terms of sustainability issues, the tourism and pilgrimage industries largely encounter the same challenges, she explained. In Jerusalem, she said, Israelis have adapted well to receiving so many people, in protected sites that have “tremendous history.”
“In Jerusalem and other such sites, it’s the destination that has to make very clear what the things visitors should do and what things visitors shouldn’t do,” she said.
“And certainly all visitors should be respectful of what the destination requires.”
According to Shurland, all rules regarding environmental protection and appropriate, sustainable behaviors need to be clearly articulated in a pilgrimage city’s longterm plans, and dictated by the local players.
Tsur said she first became inspired to get Jerusalem involved in green sustainability in 2009 while attending a climate change symposium at Britain’s Windsor Castle.
At the conference, which was organized by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation in cooperation with the UN, Tsur said she had initiated the concept of a GPN with the objective of encouraging pilgrim cities and sites to proactively become more green-friendly based on personal responsibility and religious stewardship toward God.
“The impact of the network should reach beyond the member cities and sites, appealing to faith leaders and to the pilgrims themselves to integrate green ethical standards into their spiritual experience, and subsequently into their daily lives,” said the deputy mayor.
GPN’s official launch was in November 2011 in Assisi, Italy, with Jerusalem as a founding member. It now includes a network of pilgrim destinations throughout the world, such as Haifa, Assisi, India’s Amritsar, Norway’s Trondheim, Armenia’s Etchmiadzin Cathedral and Nigeria’s Kano, among others.
“The unique cross-disciplinary approach adopted by GPN will enable us to learn best practices from historical pilgrim cities and sites all around the world, where the need for sustainable urban development and accessibility are recognized as integral parts of the pilgrim ethic,” Tsur said.
She said some of the Jerusalem Municipality’s innovation highlights include a new range of electric- hybrid vehicles for the Old City, the initiation of a process for an “ethical code for the public domain for the city,” a new Jerusalem biodiversity report, and a “trees for Jerusalem” project.
“Our goal is to persuade the people of the world to understand the importance of taking personal responsibility for what happens to future generations,” she said. “The difficult thing is understanding that the future of life on earth will depend on the lifestyle choices of each and every one of us.”
According to Helena Rey, who heads the Green Passport Campaign at UNEP, it is also crucial to make sure that the local population is in touch with all such information and the impact that megaevents or pilgrimages can have on them.
“Israel could set a trend with this symposium and spur other pilgrimage sites to take innovative approaches in keeping their facilities sustainable,” said Rey.
Because Israel “is on everyone’s radar screen,” Shurland noted, having a green pilgrimage conference in Jerusalem is the perfect opportunity not only to showcase what Israel has to offer, but also to create a model for sustainable religious tourism.
“Israel has the great honor of preserving these sites,” she said. “I think they understand that the patrimony that exists in Israel belongs to the rest of the world and that they have great responsibility [to protect them].”
Tsur added that she also viewed the initiative as a way to reengage unaffiliated Jews from around the world in a dialogue with Jerusalem by reminding them of their ancient obligation to make a pilgrimage to the city.
“This way they will engage in their pilgrimage with a green commitment by leaving a positive footprint,” she said.
Tsur said Jerusalem was considered a “significant world city” in terms of environmental sustainability because of its ability to blend nature into “essential infrastructure of the city.”
“Just look at our Gazelle Valley, which is Israel’s first nature park; the bird observatory by the Knesset, which inhabits 5 dunams [1.23 acres]; and the 50 community gardens in Jerusalem, which not only restore nature, but create community strength,” she said.
Additionally, she said that in the past five years, Jerusalem has increased recycling from 2 percent to 14%.
Besides Tsur, notable speakers at the symposium will include Mayor Nir Barkat; Count Philippe Piccapietra of the Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem; Wendy Brawer, international director of the Green Map organization; and Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein, director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute.