“Pollution and global warming pose an even greater threat than war,” stated Egypt’s German Ambassador H.E. Julius Georg Luy, as he opened the 41st round of Cairo Climate Talks on June 27, 2016. “And,” he added, “the fight to preserve the environment could be the most positive way of bringing humanity together.”
Expressing a heartfelt conviction, Luy appealed to his fellow participants. “There is a moral obligation vis-à-vis future generations to save our planet, and environment could even be a common denominator for inter-religious discourse.”
Addressing the topic of Religion and Climate Change: the relationship between God and the Environment, this latest round of monthly panel discussions was moderated by Brother Jean Druel, Head of the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies. Panelists included eminent representatives from both Coptic and Protestant Christian communities and the Islamic community in Egypt.
Germany and Egypt Host Joint Cairo Climate Talks
Taking a “hands on” approach to diplomatic climate action, the German Embassy in Egypt initiated the Cairo Climate Talks (CCT) at the end of 2011. Panel discussions have been held every month since, typically hosting workshops and round-table sessions with leading policy makers and experts from Germany, Egypt, and around the world.
Presenting a rare opportunity for interfaith dialogue at this latest round, the 41st Cairo Climate Talks hosted Father Angelos Guirguis, Pastor of the Coptic Cavern Church, Reverend Stefan El Karsheh, Pastor of the German Evangelical Community in Cairo, and Dr. Saleh Ed-din Nefeily, Professor at Al-Azhar Islamic University.
German Ambassador Luy, continuing in his opening address, recalled Egypt’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa. He noted that Gomaa declared it a religious duty to safeguard the environment and advocate for its preservation. Luy concurred, stating, “Environment-related issues ought to be a significant component of educational curricula. It is the duty of all religious scholars to acquaint themselves with the environmental crisis we are facing.”
Hoping that Egypt’s pervasive religious culture might be a lever to boost awareness of environmental issues, Ambassador Luy turned over the discussion to panelists with an example drawn from daily life in Germany in the 1970s and ’80s. Luy recalled that the Protestant Church became actively involved in Germany’s anti-nuclear movement, in Pastor Stefan Karsheh’s native Gorleben in Lower Saxony.
Germany’s Protestants Have a History of Protesting
Karsheh, now an Evangelical pastor in Cairo, was at that time closely involved in German anti-nuclear protests. Inspired by and linked to larger anti-poverty movements, in those days the ecological movement was connected to the peace movement, recalled Karsheh. Anti-nuclear protests were readily adopted into the program. He explained, “When the German government announced its plan to dump nuclear waste on a small village in Northwestern Germany, the Church became involved in the movement.” Karsheh added, “We were determined to do something for the environment as part of this global issue.”
Bringing the situation up to date, Karsheh’s opinion of environmental negligence in Egypt is that poverty constrains many people. He explained that a poor Egyptian farmer will sell his plot of fertile soil to the highest bidder, even if a building will be erected on it, rather than protect his environment. “If you ask someone to be respectful of the environment, especially someone poor, you need to make it up for him or her,” Karsheh stated.
Debating Poverty, Education, and Lack of Laws
A healthy debate followed Pastor Karsheh’s implication that poverty makes caring for the environment more difficult. Coptic Father Angelos Guirguis of the Cavern Church in Old Cairo stated, “we need to reach a deeper understanding of our scriptures in order to stop viewing Nature as an object at our disposal, but to see humankind as an intrinsic part of Nature.”
Father Angelos’ point that deeper environmental education would be helpful was countered by Dr. Salah Ed-din Nefeily, a professor of English literature at Al-Azhar Islamic University. Dr. Salah pointed to the daily reality of wealthy, well-educated Egyptians commonly seen throwing garbage out their windows.
Dr. Salah noted that the Prophet’s traditions (or Hadith) are full of examples of care for animals and plants in Islam, including taking the initiative to remove harm from the street. Father Angelos asked sadly, “How can we make sure that the streets, the country is as clean as the inside of people’s homes when garbage containers are stolen from the streets?”
Building Interfaith Consensus for Deeper Conviction
Dr. Salah noted that the government needs a deeper conviction–laws, for example, as well as fines and enforcement, to care for Egypt’s environment. “If we do not have applicable laws,” noted Salah, “then it does not mean anything.”
Concurring with Dr. Salah, Father Angelos noted, “Our main issue in Egypt is that we always have a broad view of things.” He continued, “We acknowledge the need to clean the streets, for example, but we never mention how exactly and where the waste shall go and how this process shall be monitored. All initiatives in this direction are simply doomed without clear strategies, no matter how much we preach about it.”
Father Angelos Guirguis added, “People simply do not feel that the country is theirs anymore. It is not only a religious problem, but also a political one.” He explained, “Individuals only take care of their belongings, cleaning their gardens, and their homes, but they do not care if they have clean streets or not.”
According to Father Angelos, this is not so much a religious negligence in Christianity, as a result of alienation from individuals to their society.
Focusing on Individual Responsibilities
Dr. Salah recommended focusing on the individual responsibilities of humans. He noted that in the Islamic point of view, humans are included in the environment, but placed at the center. He said, “The beauty that surrounds us, the water, the food, the flowers, God created all those for us, (…) he trusted us to take care of all creatures.”
Continuing, Dr. Salah explained the overarching rule in Islam: “What fulfills life is ‘halal‘ (permitted), and what destroys life is ‘haram’ (forbidden). It is not allowed, for example, to kill an animal if you won’t eat it.” He warned, “If you shoot and kill a bird as part of recreational hunting, on the day of judgement this bird will question and judge you.”
Pastor Karsheh concurred. “Religion helps people feel part of a community, and part of a larger network that includes animals and plants, all connected to each other.”
It was a day of excellent networking, building connectedness between the faiths in Egypt through level-headed dialogue and debate. Even with an issue as thorny as personal responsibility for the natural environment, three diverse communities came together to find common solutions.
Perhaps the easiest statement for all to agree upon was voiced by Pastor Karsheh, who concluded the 41st round of Cairo Climate Talks by declaring, “If we harm our living networks, we harm ourselves.”
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