Cover Story

Spiritual Pathways for Addressing Climate Change

As 2018 came to a close, representatives of governments, international organizations and civil society gathered in Katowice, Poland, at the Conference of Parties (COP24) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Whilst State Parties were negotiating the rulebook that will guide the implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement, religious actors at the COP24 engaged in determined advocacy for a more sustainable global climate policy.

In an increasingly difficult atmosphere for effective multilateral climate governance, which goes along with a shrinking space for civil society, it is important that civil society organizations, including faith-based actors, make their voices heard vis-à-vis representatives of states and international organizations. Indeed, religious organizations are often those who are closest to the people suffering most from natural disasters and environmental changes induced by climate change. As Tomás Insua, Executive Director of the Global Catholic Climate Movement, stated, “The urgency couldn’t be greater. Pope Francis, the Catholic Church, and other faiths are reminding us with really strong warnings that we have to rally behind the scientists. The science is crystal clear, we’re heading towards a cliff and emissions still continue to rise”[1]. Similarly, a letter by the Parliament of World Religions to the COP24 reiterated the faith parliament’s resolute appeal “to all of humanity to take bold and decisive action to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions”.[2]

Numerous faith groups followed their call as advocates for the protection of creation during the COP24. Representatives from different faith traditions, among them Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, spoke up for climate justice. They called on policy-makers to work towards an ambitious implementation of the Paris Agreement. Many of them engaged in different kinds of advocacy and mobilization initiatives: They hosted official side events, drafted joint statements, organized an interfaith gathering, prayed together, and participated in a climate march. The Catholic Church of Poland organized a COP24 National Prayer Campaign, an initiative unprecedented in the history of the Polish Catholic Church.

In a presidency event, His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, the head of the Drukpa Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, stated that we are living in a crucial time to unite to save Mother Earth instead of creating further divisions through debates and fights. Prior to the COP24, Islamic Relief hosted climate dialogues in various countries, such as Pakistan, Niger, Mali, Somalia, Palestinian Territories, Jordan and Bangladesh. Results of these dialogues entered the COP24 by means of written submissions. Moreover, an interfaith coalition submitted a paper titled “Respecting Mother Earth and caring for ecological systems, the most vulnerable communities and all future generations"[3]. These examples reflect the fact that most, if not all, religious traditions view creation as a sacred gift and feel that they have a critical role to play in calling for climate justice.

The importance of faith-based actors in fighting climate change was recognized by the Talanoa Call for Action, a statement issued by the Presidencies of COP24 and COP23, Michał Kurtyka from Poland and H.E. Frank Bainimarama from Fiji. Their imploring call for rapid mobilization explicitly addresses religious actors: “We call on spiritual leaders to unlock spiritual pathways for addressing climate change. We call on them to help their followers reconnect with the wonders of nature and creation, nurture love for the planet and foster compassion and reconciliation”[4].

Indeed, religious leaders are in the ideal position to be agents of change: they have the moral authority to mobilize their communities to preserve nature and engage in the fight against climate change. They can display a sustainable lifestyle, serving as role models for their followers and the public. They can educate local communities about the effects of climate change. By being part of and knowing local communities most affected by climate-induced risks and disasters, they have the credibility and knowledge to provide much needed help and guidance.

After all, as the Catholic nun Joan Chittister said, “we need to understand that we are here to complete the work of creation rather than consume it.”[5]


Religious Literacy Academy

Sufism – Islamic Mysticism

The whirling dervishes are the most well-known representatives of Sufism, a mystical-spiritual current developed from Islamic roots in the 8th century. Sufism is not a separate sect of Islam, but rather a stream of interpretation emphasizing the interior path of mystical love and knowledge of God.

The Quran and other sources describe the Prophet Mohammed’s spiritual journey, the mi‘rāj, in which a celestial steed carried him to Jerusalem, from where he ascended into the highest heavens and came face to face with God. Taking the mi‘rāj as an ideal of the spiritual journey, Sufism began as an imitation of Mohammed’s simplicity and spiritual life in a time when the ruling Umayyad caliphs (661–750) lived extravagantly. Many attribute the origins of the name “Sufi” to the wool [ṣūf] garment worn by early ascetics. Others suggest the term derives from the Arabic word for purity [ṣafā’][1]

The word of God as revealed in the Quran is the center and foundation of every Sufi’s life. The reports about the practices and teachings of the Prophet Mohammed, ḥadīt, are the behavioral guideline for Sufis[2]. The Sufi understands his life as a journey to overcome everything worldly which separates him from God, with the guidance of spiritual masters. The highest goal of every Sufi is the rising of the soul (nafs) towards the highest knowledge of God.

Sufi rituals focus on the remembrance of God, or dhikru ’Llāh. Dhikr has diverse expressions, including the chanting of God’s Names and short surahs from the Quran, but also dancing and music. Many of these rituals are practiced in community. The term “whirling dervish” for example refers to a member of the Mevlevi Order, followers of the Sufi Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1273), who perform one such communal ritual together. It involves a spinning dance combined with inner concentration on the presence of God. Sufism infuses Islam with inner piety and a spirit of deep devotion. Though the majority of Sufis throughout history have followed the sharī‘ah, the Islamic law, with dedication, many Sufis also offer a critique of the emphasis on the legalistic aspects of Islam alone - which Rumi argued were empty without spiritual reflection[3].

When the first small Sufi groups emerged in today’s Iraq, their members lived an ascetic life rejecting everything worldly and focusing on reading the Quran and meditating (in Persian dervish means “the poor”). Various orders (ṭ̣arīqah) developed around prominent Sufi teachers from the 12th century onward, offering guides for the soul’s journey to God. Some emphasized austere discipline while others encouraged ecstatic devotional rituals. Within the spiritual life of the orders, the role of the spiritual master (shaykh in Arabic, pīr in Persian) has always been very important, as he or she would complement the doctrines and methods of the order with individually tailored advice for each disciple. Today, many Sufis perform pilgrimage to shrines of Sufi masters, praying for intercession and closeness to God. This has been controversial to some non-Sufi Muslims who take issue with the idea of requesting anything from the physically deceased. Such disputes regarding Sufism represent one dimension of the internal diversity within the Islamic tradition. 

Today, there are around 15 million Sufis worldwide[4]. They are organized in international orders and brotherhoods. Sufi orders can be found in countries from India to West Africa, inter alia Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, and Senegal to name just a few. In the last decades, different Sufi masters and orders also spread to Europe and North America. Sufism continues to appeal to many Muslims throughout the world, to shape Islamic intellectual traditions, and to provide a vehicle for popular expressions of Islamic devotion.

Featured Actor

The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

 In 2010, Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development (ICSD) in Jerusalem, Israel. His vision was to create an organization that fosters the cooperation between religious groups and leaders from different faith traditions for the promotion of peace and sustainability. ICSD “reveals the connection between religion and ecology, and mobilizes faith communities and individuals to act”, in order to “catalyze a transition to a sustainable society through the leadership of faith communities.”

ICSD implements its mission through diverse projects in the areas of education, advocacy and action-based programming. One of their programs is called the “Faith-Inspired Renewable Energy Project”. In cooperation with faith institutions in Africa and Gigawatt Global, a leading renewable energy platform, ICSD works to deploy solar and wind fields to bring electricity to Africans, reduce indoor air pollution and deforestation, and curb climate change.

The engagement with divinity schools, seminaries, and schools of theology from Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions is another central activity. The aim is to foster the teaching of religion and ecology in theological education. ICSD works to spur courageous moral leadership for sustainability among faith leaders. Since 2011, ICSD has co-organized ten Interfaith Ecology Conferences. Last year, over 200 participants attended. In these conferences, faith leaders explore ways to deepen ecological engagement and advocacy within their institutions and among their members.

ICSD also addresses the broader public with short videos, blog posts and memes via social media. The online engagement delivers faith-based ecological perspectives to raise awareness and promote behavioral and political transformation.

Beside these activities on the global level - currently in Africa, the Middle East, North America, and Europe – Israel and the Jerusalem community have special significance to ICSD. This is reflected in the Women’s Interfaith Ecology Project which brings together young Christian, Muslim and Jewish women in Jerusalem. The project features workshops and events aimed at promoting environmental sustainability, strengthening trans-community relations, and overcoming religious differences.

ICSD’s leadership and executive team reflect religious and cultural diversity, as well as the many volunteers and interns that join the organization every year. At the center, people from Christian, Jewish and Muslim backgrounds work together to advance a positive connection between sustainability and faith.

ICSD receives support from a range of sources such as the Julia Burke Foundation and the Sinton Family Fund from the United States. ICSD is part of different global networks such as International Partnership on Religion and Sustainable Development (PaRD), the UN Environment Program’s Faith-based Advisory Council, and the Cooperation Circle of United Religions International (URI).

For more information and contact details visit the ICSD website: or follow ICSD on Twitter (@InterfaithEco) or Facebook (@interfaithsustain).


Faith and Development in the next 60 days

21 - 22 January 2019
FaithInvest: Building Bridges, Geneva, Switzerland
This international conference explores how Christian investors and development agencies can cooperate best to have a positive impact on sustainable development.

22 - 23 January 2019
Interfaith Dialogue between Muslims and Christians, Gwoza, Borno, Nigeria
Two years after the abduction of many girls at their secondary school by Boko Haram, Muslim and Christian inhabitants of the community of Gwoza, Borno, Nigeria come together in order to protect peace and harmony between their religious communities.

30 - 31 January 2019
Bonn Salon, Bonn, Germany
The Bonn Salon gathers executives of Christian development agencies to discuss this year’s topic “’Faith in Sustainable Development’ - Christian Responsibility in Times of the Agenda 2030". More

1 - 7 February 2019
World Interfaith Harmony Week (Annual UN Observance Week), worldwide
Followers of all world religions celebrate and foster interfaith harmony, cooperation and mutual understanding at thousands of events worldwide, such as official Assemblies, interfaith prayers, concerts and seminars.

5 - 8 February 2019
Conference: Ethnic and Religious Diversity in Myanmar, Yangon, Myanmar
This conference jointly organised by the Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT) and the Protestant Faculty of Theology/University of Muenster (WWU) investigates the rarely researched intersection between ethnic and religious identity in a diverse nation such as Myanmar.

12 - 13 February 2019
Keeping Faith in 2030: Religions and the SDGs, London, United Kingdom
This is the final event of the same-named research network funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom. It aims to enhance international exchange about the role of religions in sustainable development.

11 - 15 March 2019
4th UN Environment Assembly, Nairobi, Kenya
The Assembly will gather under the theme "Innovative solutions for environmental challenges on sustainable consumption and production”. In line with UNEP’s Faith for Earth Initiative, numerous faith-based organisations are accredited to participate and share their expertise, e.g. at various side events.


Insights and Perspectives

Report of the G20 Interfaith Forum 2018 and Policy Recommendations

The G20 Interfaith Forum explores religious dimensions of both key G20 policy concerns and priority agendas of religious communities. The report summarizes the different sessions of the Forum which took place in September 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Concrete policy recommendations were developed by focused working groups. Under the overarching theme  “Building Consensus for Fair and Sustainable Development: Religious Contributions for a Dignified Future”, participants explored diverse topics such as inequality and the future of work, environmental change and food security, social cohesion and good governance along with their respective connection to a religious tradition. A special emphasis was placed on human trafficking, refugees and vulnerable children.

Research Paper: Sustainability and climate change in major religions with a focus on Islam, By: Vegard Skirbekk and Konrad Pędziwiatr; Humanitarian Academy for Development and KR Foundation, December 2018.

Climate change mitigation requires not only technical solutions, but also better insights into the understanding of relevant belief and identity systems. Here, religion plays an important role. This paper analyses the attitudes and behaviours of Muslim leaders and Muslim populations in countries around the world towards climate change. It finds that the majority of Muslim communities tend to be well aware of the issues of climate change. Nevertheless, the report states, climate change preparedness in several Muslim-dominated countries is relatively low despite the fact that some of the countries will be most affected by climate change.

Research Report: Enhanced Climate Action in Response to 1.5°C of Global Warming: Scaling Up Nationally Determined Contributions, By: ACT Alliance, November 2018.

Climate change experts from ACT Alliance have published a report assessing the threats posed by climate change to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and disaster risk reduction. The report finds that warming of 1.5°C will severely impact climate-vulnerable developing countries, and urges more ambitious climate action. The report identifies policy recommendations on how to maintain the possibility of remaining at 1.5°C global warming.

Final Action Plan: Faith Action for Children on the Move, 2018.  

This action plan comprises principles, commitments and action guidelines determined at the Global Forum on Faith Action for Children. It represents the road map for Faith Action partners to respond and scale up action for children on the move. Partner organizations are now sharing this document widely and planning specific programmatic and advocacy activities to strengthen faith action for the care and protection of children on the move.

Peacemakers Video Series, By: Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, 2018.

This video series showcases several tradition- and faith-oriented insider mediators from different parts of South and Southeast Asia who were interviewed by the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers. They share their own stories about their work, their source of inspiration and the challenges they face.

Faith in Development Monitor (FiDM)

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About the FID Monitor


The factor "faith" receives too little attention in global development cooperation despite the fact that human development is inseparably interwoven with worldview. The societies and cultures in which development projects are implemented are deeply influenced by religion. At the same time, religious organizations are among the oldest and most influential actors in global and local development cooperation. The Faith in Development Monitor contributes to (1) illustrating the relevance of religion for international development cooperation, (2) increasing religious literacy among practitioners and policymakers, and (3) comprehensively explaining current developments in the field of "religion and development".

Under the slogan "500 seconds for more faith in development", the free Faith in Development Monitor is published every two months in English.


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