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Theology Thursdays: Religions Grapple With Tsunami Disaster by Neil Western

The earthquake and tsunami showed no favor, wiping out Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim villages in Sri Lanka, inflicting enormous casualties in mostly Islamic Indonesia, and devastating parts of strongly Buddhist Thailand, where Christian and Jewish tourists also perished.

"It was as if God had unleashed his anger on the people," Muslim victim Haji Ali said the day after tsunamis destroyed his hometown Bireuen in Indonesia's Aceh province, the area worst affected by the Indian Ocean disaster.

But is the explanation that simple?

Last week's catastrophe has revived a debate which raged in Europe after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, one of the eighteenth century's worst natural disasters that led many figures of the enlightenment such as Voltaire to question the existence of a God who allowed such catastrophes.

The question then was why should Lisbon be so abominably cursed? The question now is: Why Asia?

"Allah has his own way," said K.H. Ma'aruf, chairman of the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), the highest authority on Islam in Indonesia, adding that as "humble humans, there is no way that we can comprehend his infinite wisdom".

"A true believer should believe that his fate and those of others are entirely in the hands of Allah. If their loved ones were killed in the disaster and they survived, it is because of Allah's will," he said.

In the staunchly Muslim province of Aceh nobody appeared to have lost their faith - survivors recited holy Koranic verses while looking for lost relatives or staying at refugee shelters.

Whatever their religion, people throughout Asia's affected areas turned to their respective God to help them through the crisis and give praise for "miracles".

While Muslims in Aceh attributed the survival of dozens of mosques dotted across the wasteland to divine intervention, rather than the mosques' sturdier architecture, Catholics in the southern Sri Lankan town of Matara celebrated the return of a miracle statue that vanished during the tsunamis and that believers credit with keeping the sea at bay for 10 to 15 minutes after the first wave hit.

In India Hindu clerics hurriedly performed religious rites for victims whose bodies were found and comforted grieving relatives.

"People are saying that this phenomenon is the annoyance of god, but it is not so," said Hindu cleric Madambakkam Sreenivasa Bhattacharyar, chief priest of the famous Tirupati Tirumala Temple in tsunami-scarred southern India's Tamil Nadu state.

"It is a natural phenomenon that has manifested because of a multitude of human mistakes on sky, earth and water. Religious law says that the natural forces change direction because of these mistakes," he said.

"This kind of disaster also happens to tell the people of the existence of a superpower. But just like in a game of carrom when you hit a coin, others get hit, the innocent and sinful both get affected. It is not a test of faith," he said.

As a nontheistic religion Buddhism has no God to whom to attribute the terrible events, but the earthquake is still viewed as a punishment humans have brought upon themselves, a Buddhist expert said.

"We have destroyed nature, being selfish and greedy and only aiming for more prosperity, but never realizing that we and nature are one," said Sulak Sivaraksa in Bangkok.

The tsunamis were a warning from nature that humans have been unkind to it, he said, just as environmentalists have explained the loss of life by saying too many properties were built at the shores' edge, urging people to learn the lessons and to live in harmony with nature.

From Europe to Australia the question of God's role provoked a multi-faith debate.

In Vatican City Pope John Paul II told thousands of Roman Catholics gathered on Sunday in St Peter's Square that God had not abandoned people, calling the calamity "the most difficult and painful of tests".

In London the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the 70-million strong worldwide Anglican church, said that it was inevitable that people would question their faith but that belief had "survived tests again and again, not because it comforts or explains but because believers cannot deny what has been shown or given to them".

But many Christian, Jewish and other religious leaders rejected suggestions that the earthquake was divine wrath.

Asked if the people who suffered were being punished, the Anglican bishop of South Sydney in Australia, Robert Forsyth, said: "I think almost certainly not."

"Even Jesus died complaining to God," he said.

The disaster raised other awkward questions for clerics.

What of the souls of those deprived a ritualistic burial? Those interred in mass graves, buried forever under rubble, or lost at sea?

The Fatwa Commission of Indonesia's MUI has decreed that the victims of the disaster in Aceh were martyrs and therefore whether they were properly buried or not was no longer important for the soul of the deceased.

But for followers of all faiths, God's command to help others was perhaps the easiest to understand and to follow.

"We [MUI] have sent our volunteers to Aceh along with aid in the forms of food, medicine and clothes," said Ma'aruf. "We are also trying to help efforts to gather and take care of the orphans of the disaster."

Along the Sri Lankan coast Catholic priest Nihal Nanayakkara has worked day and night since the tsunami struck, offering shelter and help to victims and conducting funerals and memorial services.

"I strongly believe that God is giving us this strength," said the sleep-deprived priest.

And around the world people of all faiths, as well of those of no theistic faith, continued to donate staggering sums to help the many millions the disaster affected, most without considering to which God those victims pray.

This article was distributed by AFP

Neil Western

Thursday, January 6, 2005

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