Fifty Muslim clerics were "inducted" into the environmental movement on Thursday in a groundbreaking conference to raise awareness among imams. Starting off with a traditional prayer, the men, many in traditional garb or headdresses, sat politely through a round of introductions and a subsequent lecture in Arabic on environmental education. However, it wasn't until Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra made an unscheduled appearance at the conference that the imams began to speak out. Putting his previous experience in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to good use, Ezra opened the floor to questions after first needling the participants to do more for the environment. Exhibiting an impressive command of Arabic as well as a thorough knowledge of Israeli-Arab towns and villages, Ezra answered questions from the audience for more than an hour. The Imams of the Mosques Conference - Islam and Environmental Protection 2008 was sponsored by the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Interior Ministry's Islamic Administration and Religions Department, the Umm el-Fahm Municipality and the Environmental Quality Unit Northern Triangle organization. It was held at the Umm el-Fahm Science and Art Center. Muhammad Rabah Aghbarieh, director of Environmental Quality Unit Northern Triangle and one of the event's organizers, declared the conference a success. "The conference's purpose was for the imams to acquire skills, and we achieved that," he said. "They came, they received the materials and they were given a platform to raise their concerns with the environmental protection minister." This was the first conference of its kind, he told The Jerusalem Post. "It came about as a result of our efforts to raise awareness. We have programs in community centers and in schools, and there are environmental activist organizations. But no one had ever entered the mosques with this subject," he said. An older muezzin from Kfar Zalafe, Muhammad Igbaria, was more cautious about the conference's success. "We came because we were invited [by the Interior Ministry]. We wanted to see how we could help. But first the local council must show that it is doing something and the ministry must show that it is doing something. There is sewage running through the towns, and the ministry is not doing anything," he told the Post. "They said they would distribute informational materials, so we'll see," he added. However, Ibrahim Salame, a young imam from the Ajame Mosque in Jaffa, was more positive. "I got a couple of ideas for a lecture that I'd like to give during Ramadan," he said. "The [Muslim] culture does not relate to the environment as something essential - it is much more connected to individuals' natures. I would like to try to pass on the message and change people's natures." He added that he would be willing to attend a conference next year as well if it were to be held. Perhaps even more impressive than the conference itself were the materials that Rabah Aghbarieh's organization and the ministry had prepared. Every imam got a poster with environmental basics outlined, to hang up in his mosque, and stickers saying environmental protection was a religious commandment. There was also a CD containing sources from the Koran and hadith supporting environmental issues, general sources about the environment, a movie about the ministry, and many other informational resources. Environmental Protection Ministry Haifa District head Robert Reuven said Aghbarieh had worked on the CD for a year. He also said they would be sending it all over the country and all over the world, since "there is no other resource like it for educating your congregations." During his off-the-cuff opening remarks, Ezra took the audience to task for environmental damage in the Arab villages. "Since the founding of the state, there has not been an event like this, where the imams of the Haifa district came to a conference of the Environmental Protection Ministry," he began. "Five years ago, if you had asked me what the connection was between imams and environment, I would have said nothing. But health is an important issue." Ezra immediately launched into a sensitive topic by discussing ways to reduce the noise pollution generated by the calls to prayer. "MK Ibrahim Sarsour (United Arab List-Ta'al) agreed with me, when he paid a call on me a little while ago, to reduce the number of megaphones for the call to prayer," he said. "I would be happy if we could relay topics to talk about at the Friday sermons and see if you have an effect," he continued. "The environment in the Arab villages is pathetic. The houses are always clean, but in public places you see neglect," he said. "We cleaned the Marbad stream, and after two months it was as if it had never been cleaned. We have a problem of sewage - it is not a private problem, but a municipal one. They [the municipalities] claim they don't have money to deal with it. People who pay real estate taxes feel like fools [because the money isn't used for anything]." Ezra also advocated more cellphone antennas rather than fewer. "Regarding cellphone antennas, the best thing is not to have a cellphone. If not, then it is best to have an antenna nearby because the further away an antenna is, the harder the phone works [and the more radiation it emits]," he argued. Once Ezra opened the floor to questions, the imams discussed the issues closest to their hearts, such as sewage treatment, smells from the kibbutz chicken coop next door, and construction waste. Ezra responded to a question from a Taiba resident by deriding the town's lack of commitment to keeping the city clean. "I apologize if you sent a letter and didn't get a response. Usually one gets a response within two weeks," he responded without need of a translator. "Taiba got massive government funding, and the money disappeared. Right now, we pay builders to clean up construction waste along Road 6. Municipalities are always asked to contribute some money when the ministry does. The ministry contributed 90 percent, but the municipality did not want to contribute 10%," he said. "We built a sewage line, but a resident who apparently did not get proper compensation for the line running through his land cut it. I don't understand why anyone would want to live in filth. Why not lecture this coming Friday about taking responsibility for your own future?" he suggested. Ezra also compared the nearby Jewish community of Zemer to Taiba. "The same [ministry] unit is responsible, but it's about attitude. Zemer is many times more responsible than Taiba," he said. Ezra also responded seriously to a Maisa resident's complaint about the smell emanating from the neighboring Kibbutz Meser. "As the country grows, the communities are more crowded," Ezra explained. "You used to be able to put the chicken coops two kilometers away. Now there are only 500 meters. We are putting together a plan to gather all the coops in one place." A ministry official also confirmed that he was in the process of dealing with the problem. Ezra also denied accusations that there were not enough official dumping grounds for construction waste and that this was why it was being dumped by the side of the road everywhere. "There are solutions for almost every village," he said. After asking the questioner where he was from, Ezra racked his brain for the nearest dumping ground and came up with one "around Jarekeh. But it costs money. That is the way of the world." Umm el-Fahm Mayor Sheikh Hashem Abdel-Rahman followed Ezra to the podium to complain that he had not received enough money or assistance from the ministries. After venting his anger, however, Abdel-Rahman continued, "What we want for ourselves and you as imams and me as mayor is to send a message that the environment and the cleaning up are ours. It is for our benefit - not because we fear the inspector here or there. We should come up with an annual plan to figure out how to save water. We have a wealth of hadiths that talk about cleaning up the environment, preserving public spaces, etc." Abdel-Rahman also addressed the issue of the calls to prayer. "The idea of the quality of the muezzins is not new. We thought about reducing the number of muezzins. But the mosques need imams and muezzins, and it is not the right thing to do. Firing muezzins would just increase unemployment." Sheikh Abdel-Rahman Kabha, head of the supervisory department for dedicated Muslims, added, "If I heard a shofar in a Jewish neighborhood I wouldn't say anything. But some use the loudspeakers in the wrong way. We need to bring in engineers to adjust the speakers so that they don't face Jewish and Christian neighborhoods."