Cover Story

Can Faith Save the Earth?

This week’s major global event – the beginning of the fourth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 4) – will see a special group of people convene at the UN premises in Nairobi, unprecedented at previous gatherings of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Representatives of various faith traditions from around the world will participate in the different fora during the meeting of the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment. Forty accredited faith-based organisations (FBOs) will make this major UN conference a further milestone in the UN’s efforts to engage with faith-based actors in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Representatives from faith communities travel to Nairobi at the invitation for closer collaboration by UNEP itself. In November 2017, UNEP had launched its Faith for Earth Initiative in order to “strategically engage with faith-based organizations and partner with them to collectively achieve the SDGs and fulfil the objectives of the 2030 Agenda”[1]. The initiative’s main goals are “(1) to inspire and empower faith organizations and their leaders to advocate for protecting the environment, (2) to green faith-based organizations’ investments and assets to support the implementation of SDGs, and (3) to provide faith-based organizations with knowledge and networks to enable their leaders to effectively communicate with decision-makers and the public”[2].

According to Iyad Abumoghli, Principal Coordinator of the Faith for Earth initiative, “the unprecedented environmental challenges of the world today require unprecedented innovative approaches to achieve the SDGs and to implement the Agenda 2030”.  Abumoghli, who is responsible for the strategic engagement with FBOs at UNEP, emphasizes that “it is truly a missed opportunity that we do not partner with stakeholders from all walks of life, especially faith-based organizations with a demonstrated effectiveness and unprecedented outreach, based on values, ethics and faith principles. Tapping into the spiritual wealth of people and their beliefs accelerates people’s engagement and the organizational drive to contribute to the sustainable management of environmental resources".

The relevance of FBOs for efforts targeted at addressing environmental challenges cannot be overestimated. Most environmental problems are rooted in individual and collective human misbehaviour. Hence, the one force that drives individual behaviour for more than 80% of the world population must be taken into account: faith. With 50% of schools worldwide (64% in sub-Saharan Africa) operated by FBOs, faith communities play an influential role in incorporating sustainable development thinking in educational systems. Moreover, 8% of habitable land surface and 5% of global commercial forests are owned and managed by FBOs. In Sweden and Austria, FBOs even own 22% and 28% of commercial forests respectively. Therefore, faith communities are crucial economic actors who have a substantial impact on the quality of environmental resource management. Finally, faith communities can mobilize resources that can contribute significantly to global environmental stewardship financing. 10% of the world’s total financial institutions are owned by FBOs and they are becoming increasingly active: The market in the United States for religious investment products has grown from $500 million to $17 billion in recent years[3].

During UNEA 4 in Nairobi, “Faith for Earth” side events will shed more light on the specific perspectives of faith communities on environmental issues and their solutions for addressing them. The side events cover diverse topics such as “Eco-just Churches and Communities: Models for Living with Justice and Sustainability” (hosted by the World Council of Churches), “The Islamic Perspective of Environmental Protection and Promoting Interfaith Actions” (Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), “From Trash to Treasures: Community-Driven Approaches to Sustainable Consumption” (Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation) and “Advancing climate justice with faith-based renewable energy projects” (World Evangelical Alliance in cooperation with the Interfaith Centre for Sustainable Development).

Faith alone – without action encouraged by spiritual values – will most probably not save the earth. Therefore, the UN has started to acknowledge that the positive transformation which preserves the environment for future generations cannot take place without a healthy portion of faith.

[2] ibid.
[3] UNEP, 2019.


Religious Literacy Academy

Judaism - Almost Forty Centuries of History

Judaism developed about 4000 years ago among the ancient Hebrews in the Middle East. Abraham is considered the father of the Jewish faith because God revealed himself to him and Abraham promoted the central idea of Jewish faith: that there is one God[1]. The vision of a universal, singular God is one of the greatest religious innovations of the Jewish tradition among the world’s historic religions. Between 1500 and 500 BCE, early Hebrew prophets began to speak of one God as the creator of all existence, a view that came to be called “monotheism.”

Judaism embraces the complex religious and cultural development of the Jewish people through almost forty centuries of history, stretching from Biblical times to the founding of the modern state of Israel. For the Jewish people, Judaism is more than a religion. Judaism is a complex phenomenon of a total way of life, comprising theology, law, and numerous cultural traditions.

Jews believe in one God, the creator of the world, who has elected the Jewish people for a unique covenantal relationship with himself[2]. They believe in the Torah, which is the whole of laws revealed by God to the prophet Moses representing the Israelites on the Mount Sinai. This gift of God became very important in the Hebrews’ self-understanding because God was not an abstract concept but actively involved in history through revelation and covenant. Jews believe that their part of the covenant is to follow God's laws which govern all aspects of life.

Torah literally means “instruction” or “guidebook” and is the central text of Judaism. It refers specifically to the five books of the Bible called the Pentateuch. More generally, Torah applies to all of Jewish sacred literature, learning, and law. The five Biblical books narrate the history of God’s relation with Israel and contain 613 divine laws (mitzvot, meaning “commandments”). This divine law informs ethical and ritual behavior, forming the basis of all Jewish law. The Torah, the books of Nevi’im (“Prophets”), and Ketuvim (“Writings”) together comprise the Hebrew Holy Scripture, known as Tanakh. The Tanakh was written for almost a thousand years from 1000 to 100 BCE.

The second central Jewish scripture is the Talmud, a collection of rabbinic literature, laws and religious traditions. The Talmud explains the laws of Torah, giving Jews answers to important questions of life, such as food, agriculture, marriage and prayer. Studying the Torah and the Talmud is a central, life-long and continuous activity for practicing Jews. Rabbis, master teachers, are the leaders of the Jewish community and teach students at the Yeshiva, a school for rabbinic study.

In Jewish communal worship, the weekly Torah reading is the heart of the synagogue service. The synagogue (bet knesset, or “house of assembly”) has become an important institution as a decentralized house of God open to all people. The mitzvah of Shabbat (keeping holy the seventh day of the week) expresses the sacrality of the Jewish home and synagogue as well as the significance of Jewish holidays and time. On Shabbat, observant religious Jews refrain from doing any tasks, traveling long distances, carrying large items or using electricity.

Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) are the most important holidays in the Jewish calendar. Judaism has many holidays that serve to commemorate significant events in the history of the Israelites. Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot are three pilgrimage festivals that are also agricultural celebrations, whereby for example Passover marks the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt.

Today, there are 14 million Jewish people worldwide[3]. Around 6.1 million live in Israel, while the rest continues to live in diaspora communities around the world[4]. Living apart in diverse regions over many centuries, Jews have taken on a multiplicity of cultural and even racial characteristics. Today, the most relevant distinction is that between Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula and Ashkenazic Jews from North-Western Europe, representing the two historically most significant communities.

To conclude, Judaism can be conceptualized as a triad with three reference points: God, Torah, and the people of Israel, i.e. the Jewish people. None is central; all are interdependent, with varying degrees of emphasis at different times. God is the God of all creation. Torah embodies Judaism’s intellectual culture, focusing on studying and interpreting sacred texts. Israel focuses on Judaism as a historical culture and the civilization of a particular people; the “peoplehood” of the Jews includes customs and folkways that are part of a way of life.

This text was adapted from a profile on Judaism by the Religious Literacy Project, Harvard Divinity School March 24, 2015:
[3] Pew Research Center, 2012.
[4] The State of Israel, Central Bureau of Statistics, 2014.


Featured Actor

Buddhist Global Relief

In June 2008, the Buddhist scholar and monk, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, founded the American organization Buddhist Global Relief (BGR) together with several students. The idea of establishing a Buddhist aid organization arose out of an essay, in which Bodhi emphasized the neglect of social engagement in American Buddhism. Registered in New Jersey (United States), BGR is a relief organization working globally which a volunteer network[1].

The organization envisions a world in which all people dwell in peace and harmony with one another and with the natural environment. This world is free from hunger marked by accessible food, clothing, housing, health care and education for everyone. BGR’s vision is inspired by the words of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, who articulated the following vows: ‟May I be a good doctor for those who suffer from illness, a guide for those who have gone astray, a lamp for those who dwell in darkness, a source of treasure for those in poverty and need”[2]. Bodhisattva Samantabhadra is one of the eight great Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism. Bodhisattvas are beings striving for, or realizing in themselves, "Buddhahood" in the ways of supreme enlightenment in order to use it for the well-being of all living beings[3].

BGR’s mission is to combat chronic hunger and malnutrition, including providing direct food aid, supporting the development of sustainable farming, promoting female education and livelihood projects for women. Currently, BGR is involved in 36 projects around the world with a focus on countries in Southeast Asia, such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam and India[4].

Working mostly through partnerships, BGR cooperates with various organizations, such as Helen Keller International, Lotus Outreach, Red Cross Vietnam, Oxfam America, and occasionally with UNICEF, CARE International, and International Medical Corps. With a total budget of $ 682.243 in 2018, BGR focuses primarily on small-scale projects that engage in the fight against hunger and poverty through sustainable methods.

Programs supported by BGR include a hostel for young girls and a job training and community center for Dalit women founded by the Bodhicitta Foundation in India. Together with Oxfam America, BGR implements a food security program in Belail, South Darfur (Sudan). Over 500 farmers, who struggled with unpredictable weather conditions as a result of climate change, received material and training in resistant agricultural techniques.

BGR receives support from a range of sources, including individual donors from the Buddhist communities in the United States as well as American Buddhist churches and foundations. An additional instrument for raising funds and awareness for global hunger are BGR’s annually organized „Walks & Concerts to Feed the Hungry“ that take place in the United States, Cambodia and India. Participants come from different Buddhist communities to express their solidarity with the poor of this world.

BGR’s leadership and executive team consists mainly of members from the American Buddhist community. The organization is headed by its chairman and founder Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi.

For more information and contact details visit BGR’s website: or follow BGR on Twitter (@BuddhistGblRlf) or Facebook (@Buddhist Global Relief).

[3] Encyclopedia Britannica, Bodhisattva



Faith and Development in the next 60 days

7 March 2019 / 8 April 2019
Middleground Academy, Freiburg / Bonn, Germany
The Middleground Academy by Vision Hope International is a training in intercultural competences for development professionals. The training focuses on identifying and harnessing the so-called ‘Middleground’ between values and ideological concepts from Islam, Christianity and humanism. The training consists of four components, starting with a kick-off webinar. For registration, click here.

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. There is a separate stream of faith-based side events.

14 March 2019
Sikh Environment Day
EcoSikh is calling to join the celebration of the Sikh Environment Day aiming to raise awareness for the environment. In celebration of Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary in 2019, EcoSikh started the campaign #GuruNanak550. They encourage and help people to plant 550 trees at 1820 different locations worldwide to achieve a target of 1 million trees.

16 - 20 March 2019
Workshop on Just Taxation and Reparations, Durban, South Africa
The World Council of Churches, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Council of World Mission host a workshop that will gather church leaders, church-rooted activists and experts on tax justice and reparations with the aim of building a global ecumenical campaign for tax justice and reparations for historic social and ecological damages.

18 March 2019
Webinar: Faith in Action — Fighting Global Plastic Pollution and Empowering the Poor
The World Evangelical Alliance Sustainability Center in cooperation with the Plastic Bank hosts a webinar to discuss the multiple innovative ways in which churches can be effective agents of change in the fight against global plastic pollution while supporting poor people in their community. For registration, click here.

20 March 2019
When Does Protecting Faith Imperil Children? Washington DC, United States
Certain religious practices have implications for children — notably, child marriage, school attendance, and faith healing. The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs hosts a discussion that aims to explore potential opportunities to regulate the welfare of children without encroaching unnecessarily on religious liberty.


Insights and Perspectives

Policy Paper: Keeping Faith in 2030: Religions and the Sustainable Development Goals – Findings and Recommendations, By Dr Jörg Haustein (SOAS, University of London), Professor Emma Tomalin (University of Leeds), 2019.

This policy paper is based upon findings from a research project funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council titled ‘Keeping Faith in 2030: Religions and the Sustainable Development Goals’. The paper presents a number of recommendations directed at development practitioners. Inter alia, the authors recommend that faith-based actors should not be brought in solely as ‘religious voices’ but as development partners like all other actors. Moreover, they call on members of NGOs and governments to increase their religious literacy.

Annotated Bibliography on Religion and Development, By DanChurchAid, 2018.

The aim of this annotated bibliography on Religion and Development is to lend a hand to practitioners in humanitarian and development work. It helps practitioners to read and learn about how to take religion, religious communities and religious actors into account in program dialogue, planning and implementation. It presents sources to find accounts of good practices, learnings, tools and relevant methods in this field. This bibliography is not meant to be an overview of the theoretical aspect of religion and development in political science and development literature, but rather to deliberately focus on the practical consequences and positive effects of the emerging new insights.

Study: What lies beneath? Tackling the roots of religious resistance to ending child marriage, Elisabet le Roux and Selina Palm, Stellenbosch University, Girls Not Brides, October 2018.

Girls Not Brides is a global partnership of more than 1000 civil society organizations from over 95 countries committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfil their potential. Many of the member organizations have been engaging with religious leaders in their efforts to end child marriage and encountered several leaders as powerful agents of change. However, others have been obstacles to progress, causing challenges in engaging with them. To support overcoming these challenges, Girls Not Brides commissioned the Unit for Religion and Development Research at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, to conduct a study focused on the role of resistant religious leaders in efforts to end child marriage. The study presents strategic approaches on how to cooperate with resisting religious leaders on preventing child marriage.

Case Study: Supporting survivors of sexual violence through faith & community advocacy in South Sudan, World Vision International, 2019.

In 2016, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office funded World Vision to work with communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and South Sudan for two years to promote community acceptance of survivors and children born of rape, and to improve locally managed systems to prevent and respond to sexual violence, including faith leaders, youth leaders, and women’s groups. After the project concluded, a study was conducted in July 2018 in South Sudan. The study found that there had been changes to attitudes and practices related to sexual violence at individual and community levels, specifically for survivors and children born of rape. For example, the findings show a 24% increase in reporting of gender-based incidents, a rise in the use of health services and an advanced inclusion of survivors by church and community.

Conference Report: Promoting Peaceful Coexistence and Common Citizenship, Proceedings from the 2018 International Conference, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID), 2019.

On 26 February 2018, twenty-three of the highest religious authorities from Muslim and Christian institutions across the Arab region committed to work together to rebuild and protect their communities from the effects of violent extremist rhetoric and actions. In a historic initiative, they launched the first interreligious platform to advocate for the rights and inclusion of all communities in the Arab World, to combat ideologies exploiting anxiety, and instigating hatred, and sectarianism, and to jointly address the toughest challenges their communities face. The dialogue platform is the pioneering initiative of the International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID). 

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Der Faktor „Glaube“ erfährt zu wenig Beachtung in der globalen Entwicklungszusammenarbeit. Und das, obwohl menschliche Entwicklung untrennbar mit Weltanschauung verwoben ist. Die Gesellschaften und Kulturen, in denen Entwicklungsprojekte umgesetzt werden, sind tief von Glaubenseinflüssen geprägt. Gleichzeitig zählen religiöse Organisationen zu den ältesten und wirkungsmächtigsten Akteuren der globalen wie lokalen Entwicklungszusammenarbeit. Der Faith In Development Monitor leistet einen Beitrag dazu, (1) die Relevanz von Religion für die internationale Entwicklungszusammenarbeit zu verdeutlichen, (2) Religionskompetenz unter Praktikern und politischen Entscheidungsträgern zu erhöhen und (3) aktuelle Entwicklungen im Themenfeld „Religion und Entwicklung“ nachvollziehbar zu erklären.

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