Interfaith

Religions vow a new alliance for conservation

Leaders from nine major world religions, meeting in London to discuss conservation projects, agree to higher levels of cooperation

WINDSOR CASTLE, England - Few places more closely symbolize the inner sanctum of the Western establishment. For nearly 1,000 years, this sprawling complex of medieval and modern buildings has been a residence for the English monarchy, head of Anglican Christianity.

All the more dramatic, then, that it should be the venue for a ground-breaking summit meeting between religious leaders representing nine of the world's major faiths. (List of Leading participants)

They came together here 29 April-4 May 1995, along with key officials from several major secular institutions, to discuss how the world's religious communities might become more involved in protecting and preserving the earth's environment.

The Summit on Religions and Conservation was sponsored by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Pilkington Foundation, and MOA International, a Japanese humanitarian foundation. Invited were top leaders from the Bahá'í Faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, and Taoism. By one count, the assembled leaders represented more than two billion religious adherents - roughly one third of the earth's population.

The results, say those who were involved, represent not only a dramatic degree of commitment by each of the faith communities to further their work at promoting conservation within their own membership, but also a new level of interfaith cooperation and concurrence.

This commitment to interfaith cooperation was exemplified by several unexpected outcomes, including:

A plan to collaborate with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to engage local religious communities - whether organized around a mosque, church, temple or Spiritual Assembly - in monitoring changes in the local environment.

A proposal for religious leaders to meet with key directors of The World Bank to discuss how it can become more sensitive to local concerns and spiritual values as they fund development projects.

An agreement by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to host a meeting between religious leaders and major satellite television executives to "open corridors of communication" about the values that are transmitted by satellite programming.

"I think the Summit was very significant indeed," said the Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia, who represented the World Council of Churches (WCC) at the Summit. "In the sense that the coming together of nine different faiths is itself a very significant event, given that they all have such different histories and traditions and beliefs.

"But what's equally significant is that they came together to discuss an issue about which there is such agreement - and that is the importance of conserving nature. And I think that fact in itself signifies a tremendous moral authority," said Dr. Kobia, who is the executive director of the WCC's program on Justice, Peace and Creation.

Follow-up to Assisi Gathering

The Summit was hosted by HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, husband to HM Queen Elizabeth II. The Duke is international president of WWF. Windsor Castle, of course, is a residence of the Queen, who is not only the sovereign of the British Commonwealth but also head of the Anglican Church.

The Windsor Summit was designed as a follow-up meeting to the 1986 gathering of religious leaders at Assisi, Italy, which was called by WWF. That gathering, which led to the creation of the Network on Conservation and Religion, was perhaps the first major international interfaith meeting on environmental issues.

At Assisi, representatives from five world religions - Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam - pledged to work, largely within their own communities, to stimulate environmental awareness and the establishment of conservation projects. In 1987, the Bahá'í Faith joined the network; in 1988, the Sikhs and Jains also became members.

In part as a result of the establishment of the Network, the world's religious communities have since 1986 initiated thousands of local conservation projects, launched numerous environmental education programs, and embarked on a deeper study of how their sacred scriptures and teachings promote respect for the earth.

The 1995 Summit was called primarily to assess the work done since Assisi - and to welcome the Taoists into the alliance, said Martin Palmer, director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture (ICOREC), which organized the Summit on behalf of the three sponsors.

"The crucial point of why we held the Summit is that some religions - and the Bahá'ís would stand as a notable example here, along with the Buddhists and some Christian groups - have done a tremendous amount of work in promoting conservation since Assisi," said Mr. Palmer. "They have been busy creating new offices, funding projects, and producing material for their schools."

Other religions, however, have not moved as quickly, Mr. Palmer said, and so a major goal of the Summit was to stimulate them into action. "On that score, we succeeded," he said. "Because at the end of the Summit, nearly all of the faiths had made major commitments to practical programs for action."

Stimulating such action came through a two-step process. In a pre-Summit meeting held at Atami, Japan, from 3-9 April, environmental specialists from each of the religions discussed what they had accomplished over the last nine years and, with much interchange among the various religions, drew up forward-looking plans of action. These plans were then ratified at the Windsor Summit.

New Avenues of Cooperation

What was surprising, said Mr. Palmer and others, was the degree to which the religions decided in the two meetings not only to expand conservation activities within their own communities, but also to engage in wider and more active collaboration and cooperation across interfaith lines.

"We had planned quite meticulously that each faith would issue its own statement and detailed program of action," said Mr. Palmer. "But, and this was something we had hoped for but could not plan for, what emerged quite substantially was also a willingness of the major faiths to work collaboratively on conservation projects, in relation to the major secular institutions we had invited."

In this regard, said Mr. Palmer and others, it was significant that the Summit also marked the evolution of the Network on Conservation and Religion, which was sponsored primarily by the WWF, into a more independent group, called the Alliance of Religions and Conservation(ARC).

Rob Soutter, executive assistant to WWF Director General Dr. Claude Martin, said that when the WWF first asked religious leaders to come together nine years ago, there was a sense that the religions knew very little about environmental matters, and that their efforts would have to be carefully directed.

"Our idea was that here is a way of reaching many, many more people than we could ever hope to do ourselves, and in a far more fundamental way than might be done through press releases and mass mailings," Mr. Soutter said. But, he added, "we thought we had to coordinate it."

"Now we are seeing that it is something really bigger than us," he said. "I think the new Alliance of Religions and Conservation may very well be the next stage in the evolution of this process."

Andrew Steer, a director at The World Bank, said he likewise views the Summit and continuing Alliance as a very important means of promoting sustainable development worldwide.

"In many countries, religious convictions concerning the poor and the environment can be a very powerful force for change," said Mr. Steer, who oversees the Bank's environment and social policies division. "And we need to create a constituency for change. Remember that there are vested interests in most countries that are against making development more sustainable."

Mr. Steer said he views the Summit as part of a new and growing link between the development community and religions. It is a link which the Bank intends to follow closely, he said.

"There is, I think, another reason why this is an especially important time for developing the link between religions and the development community," Mr. Steer continued. "And that is because of the way the whole idea of freedom, of free markets and free expression, is being embraced all around the world.

"As any economist will tell you, free markets work because there is some sort of restraint in the form of trust between those who transact." This trust is a vital, he said, acting as a "sort of moral glue" which is "essential for things to work," especially as the world moves toward less government control. "And I believe religious faith is the best source of such moral glue," Mr. Steer said.

Religions find common ground

For the religions, organizing for conservation has likewise led to new understandings and areas of agreement.

"We quickly discovered that there was no point in even discussing the finer points of theology," said Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, honorary vice president of the World Jewish Congress, who was one of the Jewish representatives in London - and also at the original Assisi meeting. "However, we found that whatever our theological structure, we did agree on a couple of things, which were social. We agreed on the need to protect the environment, for one. And we agreed, almost instinctively, that one of the functions of the major religions in this world is to promote peace, and to be against fanaticism. And the third thing we all agreed on is that we are all committed to being advocates of the poor and to helping them."

"There is an evolving consensus that we really don't differ about what we as religions should be doing in this world," Rabbi Hertzberg added. "And I think this meeting was one of the very important steps along that road."

Madame Rúhíyyih Rabbání, who is the Bahá'í Faith's leading dignitary, headed the Bahá'í International Community's delegation to the Summit. Also attending were Lawrence Arturo, director of the Community's Office of the Environment, and Kimiko Schwerin, a senior advisor to the Faith's international governing body.

"For us, the Summit was enormously significant," said Mr. Arturo. "Clearly, the world's religions are becoming conscious of the common spiritual threads that run through them. At the same time, we are beginning to understand that it is the moral and spiritual force of religious teachings, when coupled with practical and scientific measures, that will ultimately solve the world's problems."


Leading participants in the Summit on Religions and Conservation


Bahá'í Faith 

  1. Madame Rúhíyyih Rabbání, leading dignitary

Buddhism 

  1. His Excellency Sri Kushok Bakula, 20th incarnation of the Arhat Bakula, Indian Ambassador to Mongolia, and acting spiritual head of Mongolian Buddhism 
  2. Somdech Preah Maha Ghosananda, Supreme Patriarch of Cambodian Buddhism* 

Christianity 

  1. His All Holiness The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
  2. Rev. Bernard J. Przewozny, OFM, Pontifical Advisor on Environmental Issues 
  3. Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia, executive director, Unit III -- Justice, Peace and Creation, World Council of Churches

Hinduism 

  1. Swami Vibudhesha Teertha, Acharya of the Madhva Sect, Founder of the Purnaprajna Family of Schools 
  2. Dr. K.L. Sheshagiri Rao, representing Swami Chidananda, and chief editor of the Encyclopedia of Hinduism 

Jainism 

  1. His Excellency Dr. L.M. Singhvi, High Commissioner for India in the United Kingdom 
  2. R.P. Chandaria, chairman of the Institute of Jainology 

Judaism 

  1. Prof. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, honorary vice president, World Jewish Congress 
  2. Dr. Gerhart M. Riegner, honorary vice president, World Jewish Congress 
  3. Rabbi Prof. Nahum Rakover, associate director general, Israel Justice Ministry* 

Islam 

  1. Dr. Adnan Bakhit, representing HRH, Crown Prince El Hassan bin Talal, president of the University of Al al-Bayt, Jordan 
  2. Muhammad Hyder, Professor Emeritus, University of Nairobi 
  3. Dr. Ihsan Mahasneh, University of Al al-Bayt 

Sikhism 

  1. Sri Singh Sahib Jathedar Manjit Singh, Jathedar of Akaal Takhat 
  2. Prof. Dr. Kehar Singh, Punjabi University 
  3. Dr. Rajwant Singh, special advisor on ecology to Jathedar Manjit Singh 

Taoist 

  1. Xie Zongzing, vice president, China Taoist Association, Beijing 
  2. Zhang Ji Yu, vice secretary, China Taoist Association

Other Dignitaries 

  1. HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh 
  2. The Most Reverend and Right Honorable Lord Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey 
  3. Andrew Steer, Director, The World Bank 
  4. Dr. Arthur Dahl, Earthwatch, United Nations Environment Programme 
  5. Sam Younger, Managing Director, BBC World Service 
  6. Samar Singh, secretary general, WWF India 
  7. Dr. Karan Singh, head of the Auroville Foundation 

* Present only at the Japan portion of the Summit

Share