‘I do God’: London mayor Sadiq Khan on religious faith, meeting the Pope and the fight to save the planet

London’s mayor led a delegation to the Vatican on Thursday for a summit on climate change

“I don’t run away from religious faith,” said Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, speaking to The Irish Times by telephone on Thursday about an hour after he met Pope Francis at the Vatican in Rome.

“I’m a Muslim man. I do God. But I’m also proud of the fact that I’m able to reach out to people of other faiths. The situation in Gaza has led to an increase in anti-Semitism and also in Islamophobia. People of different religions need to talk more. If I can be that bridge, then I’m happy to.”

Khan, a former Labour MP, this month won an unprecedented third term as London’s mayor after a bitter and divisive campaign in which some of his opponents, including supporters of the Tory candidate Susan Hall, were accused of baiting him over his religious affiliation.

Hall denied ever criticising Khan over his religion, yet she also ‘liked’ tweets that called him the mayor of “Londonistan”, a trope that is sometimes used to snipe at London’s diversity.


Did online attacks about his Muslim background during the election campaign bother him?

“Some people tried to use my faith against me. But I remember that when I was first elected in 2016, Pope Francis publicly welcomed it,” said Khan. “It showed people that, actually, Muslims can integrate in Europe. I cherished that support from the Holy Father. I’ve always remembered it.”

On Thursday Khan, in his capacity of co-chair of the C40 Cities climate change initiative, led a delegation of global city mayors to the Vatican for an environmental summit with the Pope. Khan admitted beforehand that he was “nervous” before meeting Francis, who complained this week that “the path to climate resilience is impeded by greed”.

How did his audience with the Pope go?

“I met him with the Arabic greeting, As-salaam alaykum. There is a Muslim saying that the earth is green and beautiful, and God has appointed us as its stewards. I told him this. I’m Muslim, he’s the head of the Catholic Church. But he’s also a leader of religious people everywhere. Leadership is important if we are to win the battle on climate change.”

One of Khan’s biggest policy initiatives since becoming mayor of London was the expansion last year to all of the city’s boroughs of the Ulez scheme, which financially penalises drivers of older, less environmentally friendly vehicles. Tories attacked him for expanding the net for Ulez charges, but Khan insists it has lead to less air pollution in London. Did the pope back his decision?

“He sees climate change and air pollution as similar problems. His team were excited to hear about the impact of Ulez on tackling air pollution.”

The pope has previously pitched the fight against climate change as a moral, almost a religious battle, a historic responsibility for the current generation.

Khan said it doesn’t matter to him where people derive their beliefs from, “whether that be a mosque, temple, synagogue, church or anywhere else” – the fight against climate change is something that should bring together people “of all faiths and backgrounds”.

It is often underappreciated that London, by dint of its ethnic diversity, is the most religious city in Britain by far. A recent report from the Theos think tank said 62 per cent of Londoners identified as religious, against just 53 per cent of Britons overall. Meanwhile, 38 per cent of London’s Christians attend church at least once a month, more than double the average.

“I embrace my faith, and I’m happy that many Londoners embrace theirs,” said Khan. “When it comes to challenges such as the fight against climate change we need unity, and collaboration between different faiths is a catalyst for that.”