Representatives from Israel’s Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities met on Monday to talk about instilling their congregants with environmental awareness.
“When a priest or rabbi or mufti speaks, he speaks to the conscience of people, to the inner side of it, not only to the mind but to the heart,” Auxiliary Bishop to the Latin Patriarch Msgr. William Shomali, who presides over Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories, told The Jerusalem Post after the panel, which was held by the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development at the capital’s American Colony Hotel.
“He speaks to all generations. It can be very emotional,” Shomali said.
A respect for nature, equivalent to a respect for God, he explained, can “enter the heart and conscience of the people” through canticles and music, sometimes more so than through legislation, he added.
Monday’s event was also the launch of the Interfaith Center itself, a new religious-environmental group headed by Rabbi Yonatan Neril. Earlier this month, the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land (CRIHL) endorsed the “Holy Land Declaration on Climate Change,” which was submitted by the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, calling on observers throughout the world to address the environmental crisis, including increased consumption.
“We also call for all people of faith to reduce their personal emissions of greenhouse gases and to urge their political leaders to adopt strong, binding, science-based targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases in order to avert the worst dangers of climate crisis,” the declaration said.
Speaking at the Monday event, in addition to Neril and Shomali, were Deputy Minister of the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Religious Affairs Haj Salah Zuheika, AJC International Director of Interreligious Affairs Rabbi David Rosen and Michael Kagan, author of The Holistic Haggadah and a PhD chemist.
The rabbi, bishop and deputy minister are all members of CRIHL, which represents the Chief Rabbinate, the Palestinian Ministry of Religious Affairs (Waqf) and the assembly of the Heads of Churches of Jerusalem. Also in attendance was Armenian Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, as well as Rabbi Daniel Sperber and Nazareth Bishop Rev. Giacinto- Boulos Marcuzzo, the latter two are also members of the Bilateral Commission of the delegations of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations.
Shomali opened by saying that respect and love for God entailed similar respect for his creations – including nature – and noted the joint fate that all inhabitants of the planet and region share.
“We are tourists on this land, and will leave it one day,” he said. “But we must leave it clean for the next generations, we must be accountable for how we use this common home.
“If the Earth is polluted, if the Mediterranean Sea is polluted – it’s polluted for Christians, Muslims and Jews,” he said. “We must study the environmental crisis that is part of an ethical, moral and spiritual crisis.”
Shomali also stressed the danger to the environment posed by weapons of
mass destruction, and called for a fair distribution of natural
resources, especially water.
Rosen echoed Shomali’s sentiments about the fleeting nature of man’s time on Earth.
“We do not own anything in the end and we are purely temporary tenants
in this world, and whatever we think we own is temporary,” Rosen said.
“And surely death itself and the natural decay of the physical world
should be a continuous reminder of that.”
While both Shomali and Rosen emphasized how the Bible encourages
constant protection of nature, Zuheika pinpointed sections of the Koran
that do the same.
“In the Koran, God speaks about everything – about nature, about air,
about human beings, about animals,” Zuheika said. “And of course this
description is made in a very beautiful way and urges human beings not
only to use nature but also to protect it.”
Zuheika particularly stressed the need to be careful with the globe’s
limited water resources, keep the atmosphere clean and reduce
But the leaders agreed that it is not enough to simply hold discussions
on these topics, and that clerics of the country’s three main religions
must help translate the ideas into action.
“There is a risk that what we say in gatherings like this doesn’t reach
the street,” Shomali said. “We should speak about this topic in
synagogues and churches.”
The fact that the average Israeli religious leader doesn’t take a very
dominant role in educating their communities on environmental matters is
to Rosen’s mind part of a distorted situation in which rabbis have been
pushed out of their traditionally dominant positions of societal
“Religion is not about looking for the formula by which you get to
heaven, but how to live your daily life according to God’s will,” he
said. “This is the mindset of religions, every rabbi wants to have a
say,” which might be the situation in the Diaspora, “but here they only
deal with religious questions.”
To Rosen, a very concrete way that religious leaders could provide the
environment with some direly needed alleviation is by encouraging
congregants to cut down on meat consumption.
“There is no one issue causing greater pollution than livestock for
meat,” he said. “The meat industry is a major polluter in gas, a huge
source of water waste – it takes 100 times the amount of water to
produce a pound of flesh than grain.”
In order to actively recruit the religious to environmental causes, the
new Interfaith Center will soon be launching three projects, the first
of which will be a series of 10 lectures on sustainability for Muslim,
Jewish and Christian seminary students, conducted in partnership with
Friends of the Earth Middle East, Neril said.
In coming months, the center will recruit religious leaders from all
three faiths to join Hindu and Buddhist clerics on speaking tours around
the US to spread green awareness.
Finally, in around a year’s time, and in advance of the 67th session of
the UN General Assembly, the organization will work with American group
Interfaith Declaration on Climate Change to host an interfaith Earth
forum in New York, according to Neril.