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Gerard O’ConnellNovember 06, 2023
Judge Mohamed Abdel Salam meets Pope Francis at the Vatican on May 29, 2023 (Vatican Media)

Pope Francis will travel to Dubai, the most populated city of the United Arab Emirates, from Dec. 1 to Dec. 3 to participate in COP28, the U.N. Climate Change Conference. He will address the summit on Dec. 2, as will the grand imam of Al-Azhar and chairman of the Muslim Council of Elders, Ahmed Al-Tayeb. On the following day, Dec. 3, the pope and the grand imam will take part in the inauguration of the Faith Pavilion, the first-ever hub for interfaith programming and engagement at COP.

“The pope’s presence at COP28 will be a historic event and without precedence in the history of COP,” Judge Mohamed Abdel Salam, the secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Elders, told me in an exclusive interview by Zoom from the U.A.E. on Nov. 4. The judge has played a key role along with the leaders of the COP28 presidency, the United Nations Environment Program and the Holy See in bringing faith leaders to COP28.

“His Holiness is one of the pivotal players at the international level and one of the prominent faith leaders dedicated to this issue of climate change,” the judge said. He recalled how Pope Francis “issued the encyclical on the care of our common home [“Laudato Si’”] in 2015, on the eve of the Paris conference on climate change, and on Oct. 4, on the eve of COP28, he issued an important update document on this same topic, ‘Laudate Deum.’” For all these reasons, he said, the pope was invited to COP28, an invitation Francis willingly accepted.

COP28 stands for the 28th Conference of the Parties and brings together the countries that signed on to the U.N. framework convention on climate change launched at the Rio conference in 1992. Today, 198 Parties (197 countries plus the European Union) have signed on to the convention. They come together, usually every year, to determine responsibilities and assess measures taken in the fight against climate change. COP21, held in Paris in 2015, led to the Paris Agreement, which mobilized international action to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to adapt to the existing effects of climate change.

“The pope’s presence at COP28 will be a historic event and without precedence in the history of COP,” Judge Mohamed Abdel Salam said in this exclusive interview.

COP28 will deliver the first-ever report known as the global stocktake, a comprehensive evaluation of progress toward climate goals since the Paris conference in 2015. It will also initiate a process for all parties to agree upon a clear roadmap to accelerate progress through a pragmatic global energy transition and a “leave no one behind” approach to inclusive climate action.

COP28 will bring together 70,000 participants, including heads of state, government officials, industry leaders, private sector representatives, academics, experts, youth activists and non-state actors. More than 120 heads of state have confirmed their participation at COP28, he said, as have 70 delegates from different countries.

The secretary general of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, is expected to attend both the COP28 summit in Dubai and the two-day Summit of Faith Leaders, in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the U.A.E., Nov. 6-7.

The judge recalled that Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, the COP28 president and U.A.E. special envoy for climate change, highlighted the inclusive approach of the COP presidency in a press statement when he explained: “Faith-based communities and organizations play a crucial role in helping the world address climate change. We aim to ensure that COP28 amplifies the call to action from global religious leaders to many of the world’s communities to drive and engage in climate action.”

Judge Abdel Salam recalled that 84 percent of the world’s population adheres to a religion. He said 99 percent of faith leaders invited to the November summit gave a positive response, which reveals that “every faith leader is recognizing the challenge of climate change.” He said, “30 faith leaders representing different religions or faiths worldwide will participate at the summit, and they will sign a global faith statement, which the Holy Father will also sign during the COP 28, and thus add greater momentum that will highlight the religious contributions to the COP28 on climate change.”

He said that Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, will attend the summit, together with the deputy secretary general of Al Azhar, the ecumenical patriarch of the Orthodox Churches, Bartholomew I, and the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. They will sign a declaration at the faith summit, which will then be submitted to COP28. Pope Francis and the Grand Imam Al-Tayeb will sign the same declaration at the COP28 summit in Dubai, where it will be presented.

Judge Abdel Salam explained that in addition to the Nov. 6-7 summit of faith leaders, an interfaith event will be held in Dubai that will run parallel to the COP28 summit from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12, at which 70 nongovernmental faith-based organizations working on interfaith dialogue about climate change will participate. They will participate in 70 sessions from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12—six sessions every day—to talk about the importance of intercultural, interfaith dialogue related to climate change.

The Egyptian-born judge, who is now based in the U.A.E., told America that the invitation to the COP28 summit was given to the pope last May when he and the high commissioner for COP28 had a private audience with Francis in Santa Marta, the pope’s residence in the Vatican.

“We presented the joint plan of the Muslim Council of Elders and the COP28 presidency to His Holiness and highlighted the importance of the link between faith leaders and political leaders in addressing this crisis that threatens all humanity, and the pope was very enthusiastic and very happy at this initiative,” the judge said. He recalled that on that same day, Francis made Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot the point person at the Holy See for the COP28 event.

Judge Abdel Salam emphasized that “climate change is a pressing challenge for the human fraternity and peace project which Pope Francis and the grand imam have taken very seriously over the recent years. They highlighted this in the Document on Human Fraternity by emphasizing how important it is that we take care of the planet and the earth, our common human.” He said the leaders of the U.A.E. commended the pope and grand imam for this vision and recognized that “it is important to mobilize not only the international leaders at the U.N. and state level but also faith leaders and to unify their voice because they have spiritual and moral influence over many peoples, many communities around the world.”

“The participation of such a very important and influential faith leader as His Holiness is much needed at COP28 in order to share his vision with the heads of state and politicians because all of us know that the threat of climate change is one of the most dangerous threats in our day,” Judge Abdel Salam said. “We have many challenges, but this is a major one that affects future generations.”

The judge noted that since the Paris conference on climate change in 2015, “there haven’t been many tangible advances. Therefore the U.A.E. is trying to bring a new force, a new spirit in order to try to deliver tangible results at COP28.”

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