Religious pilgrimages are the world’s biggest travel events; according to the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), around 100 million people go on pilgrimage every year. The largest human gathering in recorded history was the 2001 Maha Kumbh Mela — a festival held every 144 years in Allahabad, India — which attracted more than 60 million Hindus.
To mark the opening of the Sacred Land Celebration launching the Green Pilgrim Network, Her Royal Highness Princess Michael of Kent led a procession from the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi, Italy, alongside faith representatives from all over the world.(© ARC/Katia Marsh)
The confluence of so many people in one spot can mean a dramatic environmental impact. For example, in 2010 2.5 million people performed the hajj to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, leaving behind an estimated 100 million plastic bottles at hajj sites.
However, leaders of faith groups from around the world are making serious efforts to change religious pilgrimage behavior and reduce climate change impacts, emphasizing the spiritual belief — common across religions — that humans have a responsibility to protect our living planet.
As part of my role with CI’s Conservation and Religion Initiative, in early November I traveled to Assisi, Italy — a sacred Catholic city — to attend the celebration of 25 years of collaborative environmental action by the world’s faiths. The event was attended by faith-based groups representing many religions including the Buddhist, Baha’i, Christian, Daoist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and Shinto faiths.
Organized by ARC in association with WWF, this event was a follow-up to 2009’s Windsor Celebration, and was attended by Princess Michael of Kent on behalf of ARC’s founder, His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. The celebration launched the Green Pilgrimage Network, a group which aims to help the faiths make their sacred sites and pilgrim cities as environmentally sustainable as possible under the guidance of their own theologies.
The event was followed by an interfaith conference and presentation on the efforts of different groups to green their faiths’ pilgrimages. Actions include choosing low-carbon travel options (or offsetting emissions), avoiding polluting sacred lands and waters, and many more specific actions, such as the Sikh Golden Temple’s effort to distribute millions of trees to their visitors to plant at home upon returning from pilgrimage.
This event also saw the release of “The Green Guide for Hajj,” a guidebook intended to encourage Muslim pilgrims to reduce the impact of their journeys. Performing hajj once in their lifetime is a mandate for all Muslims.
Indonesia has more Muslims than any other country in the world; every year, more than 200,000 Indonesian pilgrims travel to Mecca. At CI-Indonesia, we will be collaborating with the Indonesian government to translate this guidebook into the Bahasa Indonesia language.