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A Call To Prayers, And To Action

A Pakistani resident sits on a innertube in a flooded area following heavy rain on the outskirts of Peshawar on April 4.
A Pakistani resident sits on a innertube in a flooded area following heavy rain on the outskirts of Peshawar on April 4.

Religious leaders have the ability to influence people to consider the environmental impact of their day-to-day lives, according to experts at a multi-faith meeting in Islamabad.

Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, central chairman of the Pakistan Ulema Council -- the country's council of religious scholars – said Pakistan’s imams could have "unprecedented influence" in bringing about action on climate change.

However, he said, first they need training to both understand and communicate the issues accurately in a country hard-hit by climate-related drought, flooding, crop losses, and other problems.

"We religious leaders in Pakistan can talk about climate change with people so long as we become knowledgeable about climate change and its other facets," he said.

At the conference, attended by scientists, religious scholars, and academics, Charles Amjad, an American professor emeritus at the Luther Seminary in Minnesota, said relying solely on political and NGO leaders to affect climate action was a misguided solution.

"We must realize that people do listen to religious scholars in mosques, priests in churches, rabbis in synagogues, and pundits in Hindu temples in most developing countries, far more than they do to politicians, bureaucrats, media, and mayors," he said. "This power of faith activists must be tapped for addressing climate change."

For example, religious leaders could encourage people to use energy-efficient appliances, bike instead of drive, cut back on the amount of water they use and help protect forests, Amjad said.

This could be achieved, said Bishop Samuel Azariyah, vice-chairman of the World Council of Religions, by sharing anecdotes and tales from the lives of prophets and saints, some of whom used resources like water judiciously and sustainably in their own lives.

He added that most religious texts -- including the Quran, the Bible, the Torah, the Gita, and Vedas -- call upon people to avoid unsustainable and irresponsible exploitation the earth's resources. But "humans have used them treacherously, out of greed, for relentless pursuit of economic growth and consumption," he said.

Ingrid Naess-Holm, an adviser on climate justice and energy issues at Norwegian Church Aid, said it’s important to get new voices on the need for climate action.

"It's really valuable to have a new kind of actors, (particularly) the most influential, like faith leaders, on board in this regard," she said.

Leaders who speak from the pulpit on climate change, however, must realize they are taking on "a big opportunity and responsibility for themselves," she said, and must be prepared to lead by example.

Ashrafi said imams in Pakistan have rarely been called on to speak about climate change, something that "reflects ignorance about the unprecedented influence of the religious leaders," Ashrafi said.

With reporting by Saleem Shaikh for Reuters