Sermon on the cruise ship: Religions of the world collaborate to warn against environmental destruction

The Guardian - United Kingdom; Jun 19, 2002

With the Earth Summit in Johannesburg now only nine weeks away, governments, charities and pressure groups are all airing their views on the environment and sustainable development. But last week, one group - highly influential but barely considered in the debate - chose a cruise ship in the Adriatic from which to condemn what was happening

The world's main religions have hundreds of millions of members and they are becoming increasingly agitated by the state of the environment - or creation, as some of them would say.

"Not to respect the creation, but to destroy it, is a sin," said Patriarch Bartholomew, head of the Orthodox church. "It transcends all social problems. Religions share this view; Muslims, Roman Catholics, Jews, Protestants . . . whatever our theological differences, we agree on this. If we give bread to the poor but it is contaminated bread, we are not helping them. If we destroy everything today, then how will our children and our grandchildren survive?"

This symposium, the fourth in a series called Seas at Risk, drew together churches of all faiths, as well as politicians and scientists. It included the presidents of Albania and Bosnia, Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, and Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro, Grand Mufti of the Syrian Arab Republic.

The ship visited all the countries on the Adriatic, and dropped in on environmental hot spots in eastern Europe. But the scientific evidence presented to the church leaders was that affluent Italy was the major polluter of the Adriatic. The algae blooms along the Italian coast in summer are caused by lack of sewage works along the River Po. Milan, one of the richest cities in Europe, with a population of more than four million, has no sewage works, despite EU regulations. The symposium agreed to lobby the Italian government, its regions and the EU to take action.

The climax of the symposium took place in Venice where the Patriarch and the Pope signed a joint declaration on the environment. But the agreement between the three religious groups, the Roman Catholics, Muslims and members of the Orthodox church that dominate the area that the environment is fundamental to life, gave wider significance to the meeting.

Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro was one of a number of important Muslim clerics who endorsed the need to end pollution. He gave an impassioned speech about the sacredness of clean water in the Islamic world.

"Today, mankind finds himself in a rough sea of corruption, greed and oppression, and indulges in mutual rivalry to produce weapons of mass destruction," Kuftaro said. "Only faith in God and adherence to his teachings provide a lifeboat that allows us, like the occupants of Noah's Ark, to seek a life free of immorality. Water has become a very serious issue. We must protect it from unwise and unfair use and from pollution, and preserve the environment with all its variety of life forms."

Kuftaro said many institutions were oblivious to the link between man and his environment. "They believe solely in the importance of man's life without paying heed to the inter-relationship between mankind, animal life and plant life insomuch as they are inseparable."

Chartres, who has been seen as a conservative in the field of possible candidates for the position of Archbishop of Canterbury, is a radical green by Church of England standards. He talked of human beings as appearing as nothing more than "rapacious bipeds of the animal kingdom".

He criticised those who "pursue growth without limits, without any view of anything but that as an end in itself".

But the bishop, who has been with the Patriarch on three previous symposiums on the Aegean, Black Sea and the Danube, said the task of the church was to get the green message across to congregations. "When you think how many people go to church each week, we have the largest potential for translating this message into action," he said. "The Anglican church is in 165 countries. What a network that is. I think there is a general shift of mood among the churches. The message is that we are a creature in creation and we must take care of the system of which we are part."

Another attendee was Mark Malloch Brown, head of the UN development programme, who had come from the Earth Summit preparatory meeting in Bali and was depressed about the outcome. "Bali's failure to come to any conclusions does not mean Johannesburg will be a failure," he insisted. "Let's treat it as a fire alarm that has gone off but the building has not yet burnt down. We have time to rescue the summit."

Sadruddin Aga Khan, the former UN Commissioner for Refugees, was unhappy about the prospects for the natural world, and dismissed the phrase "sustainable development". He said it had been adopted as a convenient mantra, but it was a delusion. "We live in a crazy world. Glaciers are melting, forests are being chopped down, European transportation is in gridlock, we transport bananas in giant lorries from one end of Europe to another. None of this is sustainable. The way the world is going, nature will be confined to tiny patches where tourists will go to see what the world was really like. This is where we are heading."

Dirty practice: illegal industrial sewage emerges at an outfall into the River Po in Turin and will eventually flow into the Adriatic