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Pacific Christians call for solidarity as homes sink under rising sea levels

 Christians from the Pacific islands have appealed for worldwide solidarity over climate change, which has already become a question of life and death in their communities.

Speaking at the World Council of Churches United Nations Advocacy Week, which ended on Saturday Rev. Asora Amosa, a Samoan-born pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, said: "If icebergs break off and float past the south coast of New Zealand we wonder what is coming next."

Addressing a group of more than 100 representatives from churches and organizations defending people and nature around the world, Amosa said: "We have criticized the industrialized nations for failing to take courageous action, but we realize also that the time for according blame has gone."

Rev Baranite Kirata from Kiribati, one of the three Pacific island states which will lose their territory to the rising sea level in the foreseeable future, explained what it means to know that not only will his people become refugees but that the place they call home will disappear under the rising waters.

"Myself, when I am travelling my heart always longs for home, for where I can cry and rejoice with my people," Kirata said.

People in Kiribati already lose their homes and livelihoods as floods have become more frequent and intense while fish become fewer. Their health is threatened by diseases and extreme heat, or as an elderly lady on one of the outer islands once told the pastor: "The sun burns as if it was just above my head."

The rising sea level leads to salt water killing the roots of trees and polluting wells; at the same time, rainfall, the second source of drinking water for the islanders, becomes scarce.

For the Pacific churches, the issue is not only political and economic, but deeply theological, ethical and spiritual. They feel that their place in God's creation is at stake. "The storms and waves eat away our beaches and as they continue they will some day eat us," said Kirata.

Those whose houses on the coast have been destroyed move further inland. It is clear, however, that this is not a lasting solution. "If we don't end up in the lagoon, we will end up fighting each other over land, food, water."

Fe'iloakitau Kaho Tevi, general secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches, said he already had received many requests to help relocate places of worship from threatened coastal areas to higher ground.

Churches in the Pacific have developed action plans and conservation activities. Pacific islanders also cooperate with partners in the North in raising awareness.

For example, recently a small boat full of "climate refugees" including two Pacific islanders in traditional attire floated on the River Spree in front of the German parliament, giving visibility to the issue during a Stop Coal Campaign supported by the agencies Bread for the World and EED of the Evangelical Church in Germany.

The discussions at the event in New York underscored the injustice that the populations who will be hardest hit by the atmospheric changes are the ones who have hardly contributed to them. While for example European countries have only few low-lying, densely populated areas, the resources they have available for the construction of seawalls exceed by far the possibilities of island states like Kiribati.

Elias Crisostomo Abramides of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Buenos Aires and South America affirmed the WCC's role as the voice for ethical and justice issues during international negotiations on climate protection.

Rev Jorge Domingues, a Brazilian from the United Methodist Church, called on Christians in the financial markets to adopt a shareholder advocacy policy and press companies on climate change agenda. He added that churches also need to consider the carbon footprint of their own work.

Tevi, the general secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches, said a series of actions the churches should advocate includes contributing to an adaptation fund based on the "polluter pays" principle and calculating each country's greenhouse gas emissions and gross domestic product.

Another action is the promotion of renewable energy, as opposed to non-permanent solutions like carbon capture or nuclear power of which the Pacific islanders have "bad memories". Tevi also called for research into the cultural, legal and economic implications of a nation's sovereign territory disappearing.

With a mixture of realism and optimism, Rev. Baranite Kirata explained that "it is now too late to do something for Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands; but together, we are the world, and it is not too late to do something for us all."

The World Council of Churches promotes Christian unity in faith, witness and service for a just and peaceful world. An ecumenical fellowship of churches founded in 1948, today the WCC brings together 349 Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican and other churches representing more than 560 million Christians in over 110 countries, and works cooperatively with the Roman Catholic Church. The WCC general secretary is Rev Dr Samuel Kobia, from the Methodist Church in Kenya. Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland.