Religious leaders unite to fight Holy Land environmental issues

IMAGE: CNS photo/Mohammed Saber, EPA

By Judith Sudilovsky

— A heat wave in Israel and the Palestinian territories in July and
near-record electricity usage — where it was available — are indications
that, despite the continuous political tensions here, Christians, Muslims and
Jews are facing a common enemy that needs to be confronted in a united manner.

“The level
of the lake of Tiberias and of the Dead Sea is lower than 10 years ago, and the
landscape is changing because of a continuous construction of houses,”
Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, custos of the Holy Land, told Catholic News

Father Patton and
two other religious leaders spoke at a recent news conference organized by The
Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, a Jerusalem-based environmental
organization. They spoke about the urgency of putting aside political and
religious difference to face these challenges and the role religious leaders
can take in increasing awareness of the issue.

Rabbi David
Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish
Committee, told journalists the Jordan River Valley, another area of Biblical
importance, is facing an environmental crisis. In a covenant signed by
religious leaders four years ago, they noted that over the past 50 years, the
lower Jordan River has had 96 percent of its flow diverted, and what little
water remains is polluted with saline and liquid waste or sewage.

Father Patton
told CNS that other pressing issues in the Holy Land include the increasing
water shortage, improper waste disposal and growing air pollution in various

While Israel has
begun a garbage recycling program, the Palestinian Authority has yet to
institute such an effort. Awareness of proper garbage disposal is also an issue
among certain sectors of both populations, with many people still tossing
garbage on the side of the road or outside their buildings, with little regard
to garbage bins at their disposal. In certain places of East Jerusalem, garbage
pickup by the municipality is either lacking or erratic, and Palestinian
residents often burn their own garbage for lack of a better solution.

Recent internal
political differences have caused electrical shortages in the Gaza Strip. This
has affected the ability of the sewage system to function properly, which has
caused raw sewage to flow into the Mediterranean Sea, which borders Egypt and

The northern
industrial Israel port city of Haifa, though often lauded for its political
tolerance, is also often sighted even by its own residents for the lack of the
environmental controls over the chemical factories located on its seashore. In
a position paper earlier this year, the Israeli Ministry of Health noted Haifa
has a 15 percent higher rate of cancer than the rest of Israel and leads the
country in asthma and breathing problems.

Father Patton,
Rabbi Rosen and Kadi Iyad Zahalka, head judge of the Muslim Shariah courts in
Israel, said religious leaders needed to unite in their efforts to educate and
create a greater awareness about these environmental issues.

“We should
offer values that can inspire the everyday life of people, and also recall the
principles of our religious traditions that can inspire wise economic and
political policies and decisions,” Father Patton told CNS.

He noted that the
Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, which is in charge of holy places, is
working on a pilot project to include environmental education in its local
schools curriculum for the coming school year.

The impact of
climate change can be easily ignored if a person lives in an acclimatized
environment with the air conditioning on in the summer and heating on in the
winter, said Father Patton, the son of a farmer in northern Italy. He told CNS
he has seen how the harvest seasons have changed over the past 10 years.

“This means
something has changed … climate change is something which touches our
lives,” he said.

Referring to the
papal encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” Father
Patton noted the value of an interfaith strategy toward environmental issues in
the Holy Land in the form of an “integral ecology.” He said the issue
is not only one of “environmental ecology” but also of “cultural
ecology,” which “connects the ecological issue to many fields in a
reciprocal relationship.”

“In this
place, it is particularly important to have a linked vision, to work on a
connection … between different cultures (and religions) of Judaism, Islam and
Christianity. This is an integral vision of ecology in the encyclical of Pope
Francis,” Father Patton told CNS. “He speaks of the importance of
dialogue between religions of different faiths in this field. We can work as
people of goodwill.”

At the news
conference, the religious leaders discussed the common respect for the
environment and nature inherent in their religious traditions and holy books,
and the responsibility these teachings entrust to people.

Despite the
continuing political violence and struggle to control land not only in
Jerusalem and the whole Middle East, but also around the world, people need to
start discussing the issues of real importance concerning climate change and
environmental sustainability before there is no land left to fight over, said

“Our lives
are more important than all these issues,” he said. The issue of
environmental sustainability “gives us the opportunity to rethink all
these (political) issues and put them into context … to focus and invest in
what is really important, which is life.”

Father Patton
said the creation of an interfaith environmental dialogue could even serve as a
confidence-building measure between Israelis and Palestinians and others in the
region, which could enable future discussions on social, political and
religious issues.

“We received
the gift of creation and, first and foremost, we are part of creation, we are
not over creation. We have a shared responsibility toward this
generation,” he told journalists. “We can cooperate for something
important for every human being in the present and in the future.”

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