As it looks for ways to spread environmental messages, Afghanistan has turned to the country's influential imams
By Shadi Khan Saif
KABUL, March 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Fruit seller Kher Uddin and his two sons regularly attend Friday prayers with other labourers at a mosque in Bagrami, on the eastern outskirts of Kabul.
But during recent prayers, the message - delivered to rows of worshipers clad in warm winter cloaks and jackets - took a somewhat different turn, to the need for action on climate change and environmental concerns, through measures such as reducing litter and planting trees.
"It is a common lesson of moral and Islamic teachings not to create extra and hazardous waste in public places and water bodies, be it plastic, bottles or whatever," said Mawlawi Obaid Ullah, the mosque's imam, after the prayers.
"I teach people to the best of my knowledge on being responsible and sensible", he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Uddin, 40, said he found the sermon "very different than usual" but also "much needed and relevant".
The past year of harsh drought and frigid winter weather in Afghanistan is "all in the hands of Allah - but we can do our bit of good work," he said.
"I have almost lived my life," he added, smiling at his sons. "Now we need to think and act for our future generations."
A NEW DEAL
Afghanistan is suffering worsening climate change impacts, from prolonged droughts to torrential rain and deadly flooding, with few resources to prepare or adapt.
Now the country's influential clerics are being brought in to help the faithful understand what is happening, and encourage them to do what they can to protect and improve the country's fragile environment.
Afghanistan's National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) last year inked a deal with the Ministry of Haj and Religious Affairs to have religious leaders - in rural as well as urban areas - address such issues during prayers.
Now, imams in the deeply conservative and war-battered country are preaching about the need to better protect the environment.
"By encouraging people to plant more and more trees and be friendly to environment, we are actually inviting and enlightening them with the powers of Allah, who gives new life to trees after harsh winter," said Mawlawi Fazal Karim Siraji, one of the leaders of the green prayer movement.
The imam, who grew up in the country's green Panjshir Valley, near the Hindu Kush mountains, addresses hundreds of the faithful on environmental issues each Friday in Kabul.
"Allah and his prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, want all humans to be constructive and responsible towards the environment, not destructive", urged the 43-year-old cleric, in a sermon broadcast through the mosque's speakers throughout the neighbourhood.
Siraji said he sees raising environmental awareness as part of his holy responsibility, and particularly hopes to reach children, who need greater awareness of the threats and opportunities.
Last year, extreme weather displaced more than a half million people in Afghanistan, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
The country also ranks as one of the nations most at risk of and least prepared for climate threats ranging from food insecurity to worsening disease outbreaks, according to the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index.
Droughts are likely to be the norm by 2030, leading to land degradation and desertification affecting more than a third of the country's 38 million people, according to the U.N. Development Programme.
Afghanistan's environmental agency is working on a draft strategy to attract at least $500 million from the Green Climate Fund to help it adapt to coming risks, including a drop in groundwater levels and worsening air quality.
Residents of Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, also have just suffered a long winter of heavy air pollution as residents burn materials such as waste plastic, rubber and low-grade coal to try to keep warm.
At times, thick black smoke has covered the city of 6 million from dawn to dusk, making breathing hazardous.
Sayed Maisam Ehsani, a senior adviser at NEPA, said religious figures can be an effective way to deal with the country's environmental problems because they have such revered status.
"People seriously listen to them five times a day and in larger number on the weekly Friday prayers," he said.
Under the NEPA deal, up to 5,000 mosques aross Afghanistan have now delivered an estimated 33,000 sermons on environmental and climate change issues, in line with Islamic principles and local levels of understanding, he said.
"This has been one of our most successful initiatives in spreading awareness", Ehsani said.
In particular, the message has reached beyond urban centres to some of the most remote corners of the country, as well as to informal settlements in urban areas, Ehsani said.
Siraji, one of the clerics, said the effort is showing some concrete results.
Next month, for instance, prayer leaders newly trained on environmental issues will plant thousands of trees "to encourage people to plant millions more in their homes, neighborhoods and public places", Siraji said.
Uddin, who attends the mosque on Kabul's outskirts, said he appreciated such efforts to educate on environmental themes.
"My children don't know anything about tree planting and farming. Thankfully, with such sermons from the cleric, the environment here can be improved," he said.
"Keeping the environment clean and green does not need plenty of money and resources. It just requires attention and affection".
(Reporting by Shadi Khan Saif, Editing by Laurie Goering and Annie Banerji ; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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