Environmentalists Converge to Discuss Keeping Paths to God Green

Leaders from various religions and countries meet to share ideas on making pilgrimage cities environmentally sustainable.

In a lead-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in late 2009, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and a staunch environmentalist, hosted leaders from nine world faiths at Windsor Castle. They were celebrating 25 years since the prince launched the global Alliance of Religion and Conservation (ARC), a secular organization that assists the world's major faiths in developing "green" programs based on their teachings.

One of Israel's local environmentalists to attend the conference was Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur. As she took part in a session on the greening of the Muslim Hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca, she was struck with an idea: Why not establish an international network for "pilgrim cities" to learn from each other about access and sustainability?

After the ARC approved the idea in 2011 and appointed Tsur to be ambassador of the Green Pilgrimage Network, she announced that in 2013 Jerusalem would host the first such symposium.  

Running through April 26 in Jerusalem, the first international conference on greening pilgrimage cities and routes features live talks from 165 speakers and panelists from different faiths and countries around the world. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, have sent speeches to be read at the forum.

Organizers say the conference is the first to find common ground between various global cities, religions, interfaith experts and the environment. The event includes a series of workshops and discussions on ethical issues such as: equity and freedom of worship in the public domain, the challenges of infrastructure and environmental sustainability in pilgrim cities, and interfaith dialogue and diversity. Also on the agenda are concerts, tours, demonstrations of a solar-powered film projector and buggies, and a culinary competition with leading Jerusalem chefs.

However, an Israeli conference held in Jerusalem, has not come without complications. Palestinians, along with officials from other Muslim and Arab states, have rejected invitations to Jerusalem events in the past, arguing they do not recognize Israel's sovereignty over Jerusalem. They have also long complained about some shrines being neglected and the lack of Muslim and Christian access to certain holy sites; Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem, for example, need permits – which are hard to get – if they want to visit Jerusalem churches.

Explaining why Saudi Arabia and the UAE backed out of attending and sent speeches instead, Wajdi Nammari, who coordinated outreach with Muslim countries, only said: “They were willing to come to Jerusalem because the Haram el-Sharif [Temple Mount] in Jerusalem is the third holiest place in Islam, but [Jerusalem] is a sensitive issue with unavoidable circumstances.” Nammari, a Palestinian who serves as the managing director of Holy Land Jerusalem Tours and Travel, will be co-leading a conference session on how make Muslim pilgrimages more environmentally friendly.

Meanwhile, the Islamic Waqf in Jerusalem and the Bethlehem municipality did not respond to invitations, according to conference producer Fiona Kanter. “We want to create partnerships with Muslim tour operators … to have reciprocity of travel, to encourage Muslim tourism,” she said.

“Everyone wants a cleaner and greener city; everyone wants more pilgrims,” Tsur added. “We would love more Muslim leaders to come … we are trying to find a way to work together on the challenges of infrastructure, pilgrimages, [and] the burden on the city.”

Tsur said that if the Palestinian Authority develops a Green Pilgrim Network, she hopes it would cooperate with its Israeli counterpart. An Israel chapter of the Green Pilgrim Network will be launched during the conference, in partnership with the cities of Jerusalem, Acre, Tiberias, Nazareth, Ashdod, Daliat al-Carmel, Safed, and Be'er Sheva, to help keep the pilgrimage and tourist sites there green and make them more accessible.

In addition to the controversial location, calls to Muslim and Arab leaders in the Palestinian Authority and countries without diplomatic relations to participate in the conference come at a time when the "anti-normalization" campaign against Israel has increased.  Pro-Palestinian activists around the world are calling for greater separation between Palestinians and Israelis, charging that dialogue with Israeli and Jewish organizations has not helped bring equal rights or proper statehood to Palestinians.

Despite the dearth of Palestinians and representatives from other Arab and Muslim states, the event does feature a large interfaith component and plans to address the ethics of trans-boundary governance and public space. Experts on various faiths from Jerusalem, the U.S., Europe and Asia will take part. Speakers have flown in for the conference from more than a dozen countries, including India, Nepal, Tibet, Sri Lanka, China, and Armenia.

Personal pilgrimages

Ilana Rozenman, the Orthodox Jewish co-director of an Israeli nonprofit that partners Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze women, in an effort to build mutual trust and understanding, will take part in a session about women’s interfaith dialogue. She will focus on her experiences of women visiting each other’s holy sites, taking nature walks and planting trees together as part of interfaith pilgrimages. When Rozenman first met Ibtisam Mahameed, her Muslim co-director, at an East Berlin conference more than a decade ago, the two ended up hotel roommates, confiding in each other late at night that both saw the other's community as a threat. Since becoming close friends and work associates, they have been stoned, spit on and shouted at by both Arabs and Jews during their outings.  

But being together often helped them to transform the negative experiences into positive ones, Rozenman said. One time, when the two were at the Western Wall, she recounts, “Some Haredi women started screaming ‘go away, you shouldn’t be here.' Then a little Persian [Jewish] woman started hugging and kissing Ibtisam. She said she was born and raised in Tehran, and that we all lived together and went in and out of each other’s houses. She said, ‘I welcome you’ and ‘she’s our friend’,” Rozenman said. At the Dome of the Rock, Mahameed calmed the Waqf-appointed female guards the door, who were upset about a Jewish woman trying to enter the Muslim holy site. Mahameed explained about the mutual respect and caring they had developed and how they wanted to learn about each other’s religions. The guards then “hugged and kissed us,” and after telling them to come back in an hour, they “showed us around,” Rozenman said. 

“Pilgrimage is usually associated with Hajj or following in Jesus’ footsteps, but I’ll talk about pilgrimage on a personal level,” said Rozenman, 71, who came to Jerusalem in 1969 from the U.S. “We women have been doing that for over ten years together.” Trust-Emun, the women's organization, will be displaying a “peace and harmony quilt” made by the interfaith group at the conference.

Rabbi Michael Melchior, an environmentalist, former MK, leader of the Green Movement party, and founder of the Mosaica Center for Interreligious Cooperation, will be one of several religious leaders discussing how other religions, narratives, and expertise can help repair environmental and societal problems. “The true message of redemption has to be interfaith,” he said. “Jerusalem is the place of God; it’s not ours. We can be much more gracious and leave much more room for the other; this is a universal message.”

Tsur, meanwhile, hoped that the conference would also help spread models for local religious and secular communities to build bridges. For example, left-wing yuppies love the environment and right-wing religious nationalists love ‘the land,' she said. “But it’s the same environment and the same land, so why not talk to each other?”

In honor of Earth Day on Monday and the conference, a free solar-powered film about the shared environment of animals, flora and fauna will be screened on Jerusalem’s Old City Walls by Jaffa Gate. Information and registration for the Jerusalem Green Pilgrimage Symposium at Jerusalem’s YMCA can be found at: www.greenpilgrimjerusalem.org

Gil Eliyahu