In 1986, HRH Prince Philip, then President of WWF International issued an astonishing invitation. He asked five leaders of the five major world religions – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism – to come and discuss how their faiths could help save the natural world. He decided to do this at Assisi in Italy, because it was the birthplace of St Francis, the Catholic saint of ecology. It was a unique occasion, involving some of the world’s leading environmental and conservation bodies sitting down for the first time with the world’s major faiths to discuss how they could all work together. It created more press interest than any other WWF event to date.
Before the event there were some concerns about how such diverse interest groups could work together. But these proved to be unfounded. Each participant had been given a special invitation: “Come, proud of your own tradition, but humble enough to learn from others”. And this applied as much to the secular environmental groups as it did to the great faiths.
The mood of the Assisi meeting was captured in the words of welcome by Father Serrini of the Franciscan Order: “Each religion will celebrate the dignity of nature and the duty of every person to live harmoniously within the natural world. We are convinced of the inestimable value of our respective traditions and of what they can offer to re-establish ecological harmony; but, at the same time, we are humble enough to desire to learn from each other. The very richness of our diversity lends strength to our shared concern and responsibility for our Planet Earth.”
From this meeting arose key statements by the five faiths outlining their own distinctive traditions and approach to the care for nature. And from these came the seeds of ARC.
After the Assisi meeting, WWF, assisted by its religious advisors led by Martin Palmer, began to develop a programme of working with each major faith on a wide variety of conservation projects. By 1995, the original five faiths had been joined by four others, the Baha’is, Daoists, Jains and Sikhs and the work had grown so considerably that Prince Philip decided to create a new independent organisation to coordinate it.
That year he – together with representative of the nine world religions - founded the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) in the grand setting of Windsor Castle, England. For the first time an organisation existed to link the secular worlds of conservation and ecology with the faith worlds of the major religions.
When planning the meeting, we asked the faith leaders what they saw as the biggest problems for them and their tradition in terms of contemporary society. They cited two things. The first was mass communication, especially satellite TV with its particular brand of Western values; the second was the power of economic forces such as the World Bank.
So at the birth of ARC we also invited leading figures from the BBC World Service and the World Bank. This decision helped shape aspects of ARC’s work in the future, especially the links with the World Bank.
In March that year representatives from nine faiths had also signed the Ohito Declaration, establishing 10 spiritual ecological principles, and 10 areas of action. The Declaration was formally adopted at Windsor as a manifesto for change.
Eleven faiths gathered with ARC and WWF in Nepal to offer gifts to the planet in the millennium year 2000
In 1997 ARC arranged a meeting at Lambeth Palace between leaders of the nine religions and the President of the World Bank Mr James Wolfensohn, as well as some key World Bank staff. The aim was to discuss ways in which alternative economic models arising from the faiths could help reduce poverty and environmental destruction. From this historic meeting, held at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s London Palace, came many links between the faiths and the World Bank, of which the ARC/World Bank projects and the new ARC/World Bank book “Faith in Conservation” are part.
By 2000 ARC had been approached by two other faiths – the Shinto and Zoroastrian religions. They became members of ARC in November 2000 bringing the total of faiths members to eleven. In November 2000 ARC and WWF, joined by conservation bodies, partners such as the World Bank and an array of foundations, celebrated the first 26 Sacred Gifts for a Living Planet in Nepal, in the ancient city of Bhaktapur. The event put ARC and its work firmly on the international scene and ARC’s work tripled within one year of the Nepal meeting. The meetings also led to an exciting scheme, by which religions would become more actively involved in socially responsible investing of their stocks and shares.
In November 2002 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II hosted a celebration dinner at Buckingham Palace for ARC and its key supporters and religious leaders. As a thank you, and in celebration of Her Majesty’s Golden Jubilee on the throne, ARC held a Celebration of Creation in London’s historic Banqueting Hall, which Her Majesty and HRH the Prince Philip attended.
We celebrated our tenth anniversary at Lambeth Palace, with many representatives of the faiths we work with telling their environment stories. environment stories We were able to celebrate a new association of Cambodian monks acting for the environment, which formed at Pnomh Penh that year, as well as an ARC gathering of Muslim leaders in Kenya, and the ground-breaking ceremony for the first Daoist Ecology Temple, on Taibaishan in China.
The inaugural Faiths and Forests meeting in Visby, Sweden culminated in a unanimous agreement to go forward and create a Religious Forestry Standard. Once accepted, it will cause millions of hectares of forests around the world to be managed according to religious, environmental, social and economic criteria. The plan is that between 2007 and 2013, a series of regional gatherings will be undertaken in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. These will be fed in to the proposal, culminating in the launch of an agreed International Religious Forestry Standard at the most sacred event in Japanese religious and social life: the rebuilding of the Grand Shrines at Ise.
The UN Development Programme (UNDP) and ARC announced that they would partner in a programme to involve major traditions in the world’s faiths drawing up generational plans of action to be launched in November 2009 at Windsor Castle. The aim is to take the next seven or eight years embedding practices and protocols into the way major faiths conduct their education, building programmes, celebrations and energy sourcing. “This is an extremely exciting development which will have a real and long lasting impact on the health of the environment and on people’s lives,” said ARC’s Secretary General Martin Palmer, who is working as a co-chair on this programme with the UNDP’s deputy director Olav Kjorven.
The Celebration of Faith Commitments for a Living Planet at Windsor Castle in November 2009 marked the launch of 31 hugely impressive long-term plans on the environment by nine of the world's major faiths. It was the first major, internationally-coordinated commitment by the religions to the environment and aimed to shape the behaviour and attitudes of the faithful for generations to come. Initiatives launched included: 8.5 million trees to be planted in Tanzania; all Daoist temples in China to be solar powered; the greening of all types of religious buildings; moves to protect sacred forests.
The United Nations described the scale of faith action on the environment as “potentially the biggest civil society movement on climate change in history”. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who co-hosted the event with HRH Prince Philip, said the world’s faith communities occupied “a unique position in discussions on the fate of our planet".
In 2010, the World Bank asked ARC to work with faith groups in sub-Saharan Africa to help them develop long-term action plans on the environment, with a particular focus on sustainable land and water management. Three African faith groups - the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ghana and the Presbyterian Church of Cameroon, had already developed a plan for Windsor, as had the Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa, which has a major presence in Africa. They shared their expertise at a workshop which ARC organised in Nairobi, Kenya, in March 2011. There was a huge amount of enthusiasm and more than 25 faith groups - Christian, Muslim and one Hindu in sub-Saharan Africa - are currently working on their plans, with a launch date of May 2012.
One of the initiatives which arose out of Windsor 2009 was a movement to green the world's pilgrimage cities and sacred sites. At least 100 million people go on pilgrimage around the world and the numbers are rising. We are, warned ARC Secretary General Martin Palmer, in danger of "trampling underfoot the very places where we hope to raise our eyes to heaven". The Green Pilgrimage Network was launched at Assisi, Italy, in November 2011 with founder members ranging from Amritsar in India for Sikhs to Trondheim in Norway for Lutheran Christians, and from Kano in Nigeria for Islam’s Qadiriyyah Sufi tradition to St Pishoy Monastery, Egypt for Coptic Orthodox.
ARC's return to Assisi for the launch of the Green Pilgrimage Network was also an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of the last 25 years since the first Assisi gathering. Martin Palmer said the scale of faith action on the environment had utterly transformed: “Today, thanks to that first Assisi event, every major religion takes ecology seriously and is involved in environmental projects, and the world's religions are increasingly recognised as playing a pivotal role in protecting the natural world.”
In September 2012 ARC organised a gathering of 50 leaders from faith groups representing countries across sub-Saharan Africa. Held in Nairobi 'Many Heavens, One Earth, Our Continent' saw the launch of 26 long-term environmental plans drawn up by religious organisations representing a total of 184 million followers from Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Attending the meeting was UNEP director and Regional Representative, Mounkaila Goumandakoye who commented: "We could have more impact in all African countries if we can work with you [the faiths] hand in hand.”
The event also provided the opportunity to launch a collaboration between ARC, the WWF and the 50 religious leaders with the aim of uniting against the killing of endangered species caused by the illegal wildlife trade. This historic initiative was announced at a press conference in Nairobi by WWF's 'Sacred Earth' Programme Director Dekila Chungyalpa and ARC Secretary General Martin Palmer. “Halting the wildlife trade is a moral issue,” said Ms. Chungyalpa. “Having religious leaders from all major faiths come together to call for the protection of wildlife on religious grounds … may turn the tide of the disaster we face today.”
A global movement aimed at shifting billions of dollars of faith-based investments into initiatives supporting sustainable development and the environment was launched November 2017 at the beautiful Lassalle-Haus in the hills outside Zug, Switzerland. This short film below tells what it was all about.
A new organisation, stemming from ARC's initiatives, was launched in March 2019, bringing together some of the largest religious investors representing trillions of dollars. It might change the world. It will certainly redefine the meaning of a “good investment”. Link here for ARC's announcement or see www.faithInvest.org for the latest news.
ARC closed after 23 exciting years brokering links between the world's major faiths and organisations working on environment programmes. We made this decision for the best of reasons: we did what we set out to do. ARC's secretary general Martin Palmer and ARC's board of trustees agreed in 1996 that ARC would exist only for as long as it took to put religion on the agenda of major secular environment groups, and environment on the agenda of major world religions. "There is work to be done, but there are now many organisations and bodies around to do that work, in both the religious and the secular worlds."
"We were founded in 1995 in order to help the religions work on conservation, and for conservation organisations to work with religions. When we started many people – on all sides – thought there was little connection between religions and the environment. Now it is rare to find anyone in a key decision-making role who is sceptical." Link here for more details.
The Independent newspaper, 25 November 2002: ARC’s celebration of Creation: fit for a Queen A gathering of the leaders of the world’s 11 major religious faiths, at an international religious celebration of Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee, could have profound repercussions around the world.
ARC / World Bank Alliance This pioneering partnership challenges many stereotypes both about the World Bank – and about the world's religions