Sunday, 19 December 2010

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to all my readers. It's been a particularly harsh winter in Britain so far. Heavy snow has affected most of the country, causing travel chaos for many, many people. Roads, airports, train and other public services have all been severely affected. Normally snow hits my part of the country in January or February, but this year it has come early and with a vengeance. A few people have even died due to the effects of the weather. British people often dream of a white Christmas, but now that it has come and caused so much misery I wonder how many still feel this way!

We have put up the Christmas tree and decorations in our house, and we are eagerly counting down to the big day commemorating Christ's birth. Despite the commercialisation of Christmas in recent times, it is still a wonderful and joyous occasion. What is truly touching for me is that God chose to come into this world in the humblest of circumstances, in a lowly manger in Bethlehem, and lived among us. That shows He does not care for one's position in this world; He loves everyone.

In a dark and troubled world, Jesus offers divine light. This is what St John has to say about that:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it...The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world...He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God...And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.
Thank God for the Light. Have a great Christmas and best wishes for the New Year.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Why does God allow suffering?

On 31 October 2010, Muslim extremists attacked Our Lady of Salvation Syrian Catholic Church in central Baghdad, Iraq. They killed 52 innocent people including three priests during mass. Among the dead was three years old Adam, pictured here. He witnessed the deaths of his own parents before being murdered himself a few hours later. The brutality of this massacre is truly shocking, and it will only force more Iraqi Christians, who are already feeling increasingly threatened, to flee their homeland.

A common question many people ask is: if God is good, why does He allow so much suffering to happen? It is a reasonable question. Atheists often ask the same question to challenge the very existence of God. However, you cannot seek a moral explanation without presupposing the universe is a moral system, i.e. governed by a moral being or moral law. I have to admit that in times of deep sorrow, one’s faith in God can be shaken and severely tested. It is easy to blame God or reject Him in such situations, but a deeper look at our scriptures can explain why God allows suffering to happen.

Non-Christian viewpoints

Let us briefly look at some non-Christian viewpoints first. In Hinduism suffering is considered to be just punishment for one’s sins, either in this life or in a previous one. This is the concept of karma, which is shared in other Indian religions like Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. In Buddhism suffering plays a central role: it teaches suffering is caused by attachment to transient things and the ignorance thereof. The way to avoid suffering is by gradual self-improvement and detachment in order to reach a state of nirvana (or enlightenment). In Islam suffering is the result of human imperfection and unbelief; it is necessary to test one’s faith and strengthen it. So suffering is the will of God – inshallah.

The problem I have with these viewpoints is how suffering seems to be built into the law of the cosmos. Clearly in many cases it isn’t deserved? If punishment is governed by a cosmic law, then is the amount of suffering also built in? Is it not right to try and alleviate suffering? According to the law of karma that would be wrong, akin to letting the guilty out of jail.

Christian viewpoint

It’s clear from the bible that God doesn’t like suffering, which results mainly from the misuse of our gift of free will. There was a time on this earth when there was no suffering. God wanted man to live in peace and harmony without ever having to experience sorrow. However, due to the Fall in the Garden of Eden suffering entered the world. We became separated from God and the consequences were death and sorrow. Paul says in Romans 5:12, “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:” We are all born with a sinful nature, which we inherit from Adam and Eve.

Although God does not like seeing people suffer He clearly allows it for various reasons. The main reason is simply to remind us that something is wrong. If everything were alright between man and God, there would be no sorrow and death because in the beginning there was none. The leper of Matthew 8:2 would never have come to Jesus if he had been in perfect health, nor the blind man of Luke 18:35. It’s clear from the bible that God reaches people through suffering.

In the Old Testament, God gave the people of Israel the responsibility to uphold His law. Whenever they disobeyed and became wicked, God allowed armies from neighbouring countries to attack Israel. This was His way of disciplining His people. Just like a responsible father sometimes scolds his child, God also disciplines His children. Hebrews 12:6-8 says, “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons.” Paul in Corinthians 11:31-32 tells us we can avoid often God’s chastisement by judging ourselves instead of ignoring our sins, thus forcing God to judge us.

Of course, there are cases in the bible where suffering seemed overly harsh. Paul was faithful to Christ after his conversion, yet he had to endure much hardship. He said in this letters that suffering made him stronger and kept him humble. God allowed Satan to take Job’s oxen, his asses, his sheep, his camels, his servants, his children and even his health. Yet Job did not curse God and remained faithful, for which he was richly rewarded in the end. The lesson is that even the just may suffer, and their sufferings are a test of their fidelity. They will be rewarded in the end.


We have to accept that in this world, where Satan uses all kinds of tricks to deceive us, suffering is an inherent part of life. We have to live with it, but try the best we can to cope and help others. Jesus did warn us that to follow Him will invite trouble (Mark 8:34): “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” In our times of distress we can look to Jesus, for He, who was without sin, was condemned and crucified on a cross but rose again on the third day.

In John 11:25-26 Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die." So don’t be disheartened. Whatever you suffer on earth is nothing compared to eternal separation from God. Jesus has already paid for your sins by dying on the cross. Just believe in Him, trust Him, love Him and worship Him and you too can look forward to eternal happiness.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

European economic woes

The men in suits from the European Commission and the IMF have descended on Dublin. Ireland is in serious economic trouble. Its banks are virtually bust and its budget deficit (32%) is the worst in Europe. The Irish public are already enduring severe austerity measures including raised taxes and reduced salaries. The days when Ireland’s economy was known as the “Celtic Tiger” are truly over.

Ireland experienced a classic property boom from 2000 to 2006. During this time banks became reckless with their lending. Then when the bubble finally burst the loans turned bad, and the banks and the economy suffered. This has happened in other countries too. The problem for Ireland is that, being part of the single European currency (Euro), it doesn’t have the necessary tools, like devaluing its currency and lowering interest rates, to stimulate growth.

There are fears that the crisis in Ireland could spread to other European countries like Portugal and Spain. Hence the urgency to deal with the Irish crisis and avert a contagion that might result in another economic downturn. Unemployment within many European countries has increased and economic growth remains sluggish. Added to this are measures taken by governments to cut public spending in order to reduce their deficits. This is likely to slow economic growth further and result in more unemployment.


When the IMF gets involved, you know there are serious problems. This is an organisation which emerged at the end of World War II to assist the reconstruction of a devastated Europe. It was founded on the belief that markets often worked badly, and there is a need to put international pressure on countries to stop their economies going into a slump. Although the ideas and intentions behind it were good, the IMF has evolved into something very different today. It is now part of a new “Washington Consensus” – a consensus composed of itself, the World Bank and the US Treasury – that believes in market fundamentalism. It has made mistakes in all areas it has been involved: development, crisis management, and countries making the transition from communism to capitalism.

Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz says about the IMF in his book “Globalization and its discontents”:
“The Fund believes it is fulfilling the tasks assigned to it: promoting global stability, helping developing countries in transition achieve not only stability but also growth. Until recently it debated whether it should be concerned with poverty – that was the responsibility of the World Bank – but today it has even taken that on board as well, at least rhetorically. I believe, however, that it has failed in its mission, that the failures are not just accidental but the consequences of how it has understood its mission.”

Social contexts

The problem with many of the technocrats in institutions like the IMF is that they are short-sighted about the effects of their policies. They’re driven by a blind faith in markets. They often do not know a country well, yet propose solutions for that country as though they know everything about it. Globalization can be beneficial for many people, but it can cause a lot of misery too. One has to be mindful of the social contexts within countries before implementing policies; if not, policies can be counterproductive.

Cuts in government spending will inevitably increase unemployment. This has the potential of increasing social tension. It is important that governments are wary of this as they pursue deficit reductions. In Europe, far right nationalist parties have made gains in recent elections. The rise of the Third Reich before World War II occurred under very depressed economic conditions. Such conditions, as well as wounded national pride, provided a perfect platform for the Nazis to take control of Germany. While Europe is still a long way from the levels of fascism that led to World War II, history has shown far right parties are capable of exploiting economic downturns for their political advantage.

It’s likely the whole of Europe will experience low growth as a result of cuts in many countries. Severe austerity measures could even push the region back into recession, which will have global implications. The people likely to suffer the most are the poor. It’s important governments do not destroy basic safety nets. It remains to be seen if contagion is avoided and the single European currency will survive. Many economists predict a new “normal” of higher unemployment rates, lower growth and lower levels of public services. For countries like Ireland, their economic woes are just beginning.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Thanks Joseph

I would like to thank Joseph Pulikotil for giving me this blog award. It's truly an honour.

Joseph blogs here: A MAN ON THE MOVE

I find his blog extremely interesting and inspiring. Since Joseph comes from my native place - Kerala - it's always a pleasure to read his posts; they usually contain lovely photos from back home.

Blogging for me is a part-time activity that has to be balanced with work and family commitments. Personally, I like to read around my subject before I write about it. So it's as much a learning experience as it is a hobby.

I'm still trying to improve my blogging skills. I regard Joseph, however, as an accomplished blogger. His blog always attracts a regular stream of visitors from different parts of the world. Please do visit his blog.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Chinese characters bear the imprint of Genesis

The Chinese language is a pictorial language, which has been used for more than 4,000 years. There are about 600 basic symbols, which are basic words. Other words are formed by combining these basic symbols to more complicated pictures. What I find fascinating is how the language seems to echo Genesis, the first book of the Bible. A look at some words will illustrate this.

Chinese characters

The word "creation" or "to create" is built from 4 signs - dust, breath (or mouth), alive and walking - the first three of which, placed together, mean "to talk".

In Genesis, the first man – Adam - was made out of the dust of the earth. God breathed with His mouth the breath of life into Adam's nostrils, and Adam became a living soul able to talk and walk.

The "garden" character is made from the sign "enclosure", divided in four parts.

In Genesis, the Garden of Eden had four rivers: Pishon, Gihon, Hiddekel, and Euphrates.

The character meaning "to warn" or "forbidden" consists of two characters for "tree" and one for "God".

In Genesis, God had forbidden Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of Life.

The character for "desire" or "covet" is formed of two trees on top and the character for "woman" below.

Compare this with Genesis 3:6 where the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.

The character for "beginning" is made from "woman", "secretly" and "mouth" (also meaning "to eat").

This seems to reflect the beginning of original sin after Eve ate the forbidden fruit.

The character for "devil" is built from "alive" or "moving", "garden", "man", and "privately" or "secretly". So we find a secret man alive in the garden: the devil!

The character for "boat" is built from three signs: a vessel, eight and people. So eight people in a vessel makes a boat.

This is symbolic of the eight passengers on Noah’s Ark who survived the Great Flood.


According to the biblical account, a united humanity, speaking a single language, existed after the Great Flood, which wandered for many years and eventually settled in the land of Shinar. When the people wanted to build a tower that reached into God’s sphere of heaven, effectively to ‘challenge heaven’, God was greatly offended. He decided to confuse them and they started to speak different languages. Unable to communicate with each other, they scattered around the world.

The people who climbed the mountains to the east and eventually settled when they reached the sea became the great nation of China. They took with them the pictorial language which had been in use until the time of Babel. They also took with them the knowledge of the events in Genesis 1-11. This was before Moses wrote them down centuries later. This shows that the Bible is not a Jewish invention but based on reality.

The people who first arrived in China believed in one God. It was only after Confucius and Buddha that they got involved in idolatry.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Hope Without Fear Event, Westminster

On Saturday 16 October 2010 I went to Westminster Cathedral, the mother church of the Roman Catholic community in England and Wales, to attend Aid to the Church in Need’s annual mass and ‘Hope Without Fear’ event. I am a supporter of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), which is an association connected with the Catholic Church that works for oppressed and persecuted Christians around the world. It was founded by a Dutch priest, Fr Werenfried van Straaten, on Christmas Day in 1947 to help refugees in the wake of the Second World War. Since then its mission has gradually expanded to help poor, forgotten and persecuted Christians in more than 140 countries.

Westminster Cathedral

This was my first visit to Westminster Cathedral, which is situated a short distance from Victoria Station. Constructed between 1895 and 1903, the cathedral has a neo-Byzantine style with large domes, balconies and a tall tower, all made from red brick and Portland stone. I loved the mosaic work both on the exterior and in the interior of the building.

The sung Latin mass was celebrated by Fr Edward Hiiboro Kussala from Sudan. Not so long ago, Pope Benedict XVI also celebrated sung Latin mass in the same cathedral during his papal visit to Britain. To be there, in such an august setting, and celebrate the Eucharist with fellow Catholics was a wonderful experience.

Hope without Fear

ACN’s Hope Without Fear Event was held in the Cathedral Hall after mass. The event was attended by at least three hundred people. Speakers included: Neville Kyrke-Smith, UK Director of ACN; Fr Martin Edwards, ACN UK’s Ecclesiastical Assistant; Fr Martin Edward Hiiboro Kussala; Fr Michael Shields from Magadan, Siberia; and John Pontifex, ACN’s UK Head of Press and Information. There was a reflection by Fr Martin Edwards on Pope Benedict XVI’s highly successful recent visit to Britain and the close relationship between ACN and the Holy Father. This was followed by reports on various ACN priority countries.


Fr Edward Hiiboro Kussala talked about his native Sudan, which has been blighted by bloody internal conflict for many years. Fr Edward lost his own mother during a military raid when he was just two months old. Somehow his life was spared, and he was brought up by his grandmother who was a strong Christian woman.

Northern Sudan is predominantly Muslim while the southern part of the country has a sizeable Christian population. Over one and half million, predominantly Christian, people have been killed over the last two decades by government backed militia in Southern Sudan. Although some peace has prevailed since the signing of a peace agreement in 2005, tension is increasing again because people in Southern Sudan are due to vote in a referendum on self-determination soon. The president of Sudan has made it clear that he will not accept independence for Southern Sudan; and to complicate matters further, Southern Sudan has substantial oil deposits, which countries like China wish to exploit. Fr Edward expressed his gratefulness for the work of ACN in Sudan and for supporting his studies.

Magadan, Siberia

Alaskan-born Fr Michael Shields spoke about Magadan, Siberia, where some two million people, including many Catholics, perished in former communist gulags (labour camps). He told how his parish is involved with helping survivors of those gulags, who had previously been social outcastes. Things have certainly improved in the Russian Far-East since the end of the old Soviet regime, but there are some persistent social problems including alcoholism, unemployment and abortion. Russia has the highest abortion rate in the world with 13 terminations for every 10 live births. Fr Shields, with the help of ACN, is involved in pioneering pro-life work in Magadan.


John Pontifex began his talk about Pakistan by quoting the nation’s founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who wanted Pakistan to be a homeland for Muslims but not an Islamic state. The reality is that Pakistan has not turned out to be the tolerant, secular state Jinnah expected. Over time, minority ethnic and religious groups have faced more and more discrimination and persecution. According to Catholic bishops in Pakistan, the country today is experiencing a ‘Talibanisation’ of society due to the influence of extremists.

Pakistan has notorious blasphemy laws that are meant to protect Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, but they have frequently been used as a pretext to attack minorities. Innocent Christians can sometimes find themselves the victims of malicious accusations made by angry Muslim mobs. Although the current government is beginning to think again about the blasphemy laws, change is likely to be a slow process.

Despite the many adversities Christians face in Pakistan, many of them are willing to suffer and even lay down their lives for the sake of their faith. ACN continues to provide disaster relief in the wake of the devastating floods, as well as helping to repair damaged churches and building a new seminary outside Karachi.


Finally, Neville Kyrke-Smith gave a report on Ukraine. In this former Soviet state the Orthodox and Catholic churches faced widespread oppression under the communists, but today they are undergoing a major revival. The number of seminarians has picked up markedly since the Soviet Union imploded and church attendance is high among the population. Although the shadow of Russia is still there, the revival of the church’s fortunes in Ukraine gives hope for Christians in other countries where they face oppression. In Ukraine, ACN is supporting the training of priests in seminaries, catechetical education and construction of churches.

Final thoughts

I enjoyed this event which was well organised. All the talks were highly interesting and informative. It was clear the church faced some serious challenges in various countries like Sudan and Pakistan, but the revival of Christianity in states of the former Soviet Union showed that the church had incredible staying power despite severe persecution. That was the inspiring lesson for me.

ACN does some sterling work in many different countries throughout the world, helping to support persecuted Christians and fulfil the church’s missionary commission. All the speakers were grateful to ACN’s benefactors who made the organisation’s work possible, and rightly so. It was an event that made me feel proud to be a Catholic.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Boyhood dreams

A boy once said to God, “I know what I want when I grow up.” He proceeded to give God his list: to live in a big house with two Saint Bernard's; to marry a tall, blue-eyed woman; to have three sons - one who will be a senator, one a scientist, and the other a quarterback. He also wanted to be a mountain climber and drive a red Ferrari.

As it turned out, the boy hurt his knee one-day while playing football. He could no longer climb trees, much less mountains. He married a beautiful and kind woman who was short with brown eyes. Because of his business, he lived in an apartment in the city and usually rode the subway. He had three loving daughters, and they adopted a fluffy cat.

One daughter became a nurse, one an artist and the third a music teacher. One morning the man awoke and remembered his boyhood dream. He became extremely depressed.

Heartbroken, he called out to God, “Remember when I was a boy and told You all the things I wanted? Why didn't You give me those things?”

“I could have,” said God, “but I wanted to make you happy.”

Author Unknown

Moral of the story

We often chase things that we think will make us happy: money, a beautiful woman, a big house, a fast car, success in our career and success in other areas. When we don't get these things, we can get down. Sometimes we even blame God for not answering our prayers. But how are we to know we would have been happier if we got these things? As Isaiah 55:8-9 says, God's wisdom and His ways are infinitely higher and better than ours can ever be:

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the Lord.
"As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Life is full of ups and downs, twists and turns. Rather than trying to achieve everything the way we want, we should trust God will allow things to happen in His perfect order. God yearns for each of us to build an intimate relationship with Him, and He knows what is best for each of us.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Life after death experience

Father Jose Maniyangat is pastor of St Mary's Mother of Mercy Catholic Church in Macclenny, Florida. In 1985 he had a life-after-death experience and this is his personal testimony:

I was born on July 16, 1949 in Kerala, India to my parents, Joseph and Theresa Maniyangat. I am the eldest of seven children: Jose, Mary, Theresa, Lissama, Zachariah, Valsa and Tom.

At the age of fourteen, I entered St. Mary’s minor seminary in Thiruvalla to begin my studies for the priesthood. Four years later I went to St. Joseph’s Pontifical Major Seminary in Alwaye, Kerala to continue my priestly formation. After completing seven years of Philosophy and Theology I was ordained a priest on January 1, 1975 to serve as a missionary at the Diocese of Thiruvalla.

In 1978 while teaching at the St. Thomas minor seminary in Bathery, I became an active member of the Charismatic Renewal movement and began conducting charismatic retreats and conferences in Kerala.

On Sunday April 14, 1985, the Feast of Divine Mercy, I was going to celebrate Mass at a mission church in the north part of Kerala, and I had a fatal accident. I was riding a motorcycle when I was hit head-on by a jeep driven by a man who was intoxicated after a Hindu festival. I was rushed to a hospital about 35 miles away. On the way my soul came out from my body and I experienced death. Immediately I met my Guardian angel. I saw my body and the people who were carrying me to the hospital. I heard them crying and praying for me. At this time my angel told me: “I am going to take you to Heaven, the Lord wants to meet you and speak with you”. He also said that on the way he wanted to show me hell and purgatory.


First, the angel escorted me to hell. It was an awful sight! I saw Satan and the devils, an unquenchable fire of about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, worms crawling, people screaming and fighting, others being tortured by demons. The angel told me all these sufferings were due to unrepented mortal sins. Then, I understood there are seven degrees of suffering or levels according to the number and kinds of mortal sins committed in their earthly lives. The souls looked very ugly, cruel and horrible. It was a fearful experience. I saw people whom I knew but I am not allowed to reveal their identities. The sins that convicted them were mainly abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, hatefulness, unforgiveness, sacrilege etc. The angel told me if they had repented they would have avoided hell and gone instead to purgatory. I also understood some people who repent from these sins might be purified on earth through their sufferings. This way they can avoid purgatory and go straight to heaven.

I was surprised when I saw in hell even Priests, Nuns and Bishops, some of whom I never expected to see. Many of them were there because they had misled the people with false teaching and bad example.


After the visit to hell, my Guardian angel escorted me to Purgatory. Here too, there are seven degrees of suffering and unquenchable fire. But it is far less intense than hell and there was neither quarreling nor fighting. The main suffering of these souls is their separation from God. Some of those who are in Purgatory committed numerous mortal sins; but they were reconciled with God before their death. Even though these souls are suffering, they enjoy peace and the knowledge that one day they will see God face to face.

I had a chance to communicate with the souls in Purgatory. They asked me to pray for them and to tell the people to pray for them as well, so they can go to heaven quickly. When we pray for these souls, we will receive their gratitude through their prayers and once they enter heaven their prayers become even more meritorious.


Next, my angel escorted me to heaven passing through a big dazzling white tunnel. I never experienced this much peace and joy in my life. Then immediately heaven opened up and I heard the most delightful music, which I have never heard before. The angels were singing and praising God. I saw all the saints, especially the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph, and many dedicated holy Bishops and Priests who were shining like stars. When I appeared before the Lord, Jesus told me: “I want you to go back to the world. In your second life you will be an instrument of peace and healing to my people. You will work in a foreign land and you will speak in a foreign tongue. Everything is possible for you with my grace.” After these words, the Blessed Mother told me: “Do whatever He tells you. I will help you in your ministries.”

Words cannot express the beauty of heaven. There we find so much peace and happiness, which exceed a million times our imagination. Our Lord is far more beautiful than any image can convey. His face is radiant and luminous and more beautiful than a thousand rising suns. The pictures we see in the world are only a shadow of His magnificence. The Blessed Mother was next to Jesus; she was so beautiful and radiant. None of the images we see in this world can compare with her real beauty. Heaven is our real home, we are all created to reach heaven and enjoy God forever. Then, I came back to the world with my angel.

Soul Returning To Body On Earth

While my body was at the hospital, the doctor completed all examinations and I was pronounced dead. The cause of death was bleeding. My family was notified and since they were far away, the hospital staff decided to move my dead body to the morgue. Because the hospital did not have air conditioners they were concerned that the body would decompose quickly. As they were moving my dead body to the morgue, my soul came back to the body. I felt excruciating pain because of so many wounds and broken bones. I began to scream and the people became frightened and ran away screaming. One of them approached the doctor and said: “the dead body is screaming.” The doctor came to examine the body and found that I was alive. So he said: “Father is alive, it is a miracle, take him back to the hospital.”

Now, back at the hospital, they gave me blood transfusions and I was taken to surgery to repair the broken bones. They worked on my lower jaw, ribs, pelvic bone, wrists, and right leg. After two months, I was released from the hospital, but my orthopedic doctor said that I would never walk again. I then said to him: “the Lord who gave me my life back and sent me back to the world will heal me.” Once at home we were all praying for a miracle. Still after a month at home and with the casts removed I was not able to move. But one day while praying I felt an extraordinary pain in my pelvic area. After a short while the pain disappeared completely and I heard a voice saying: “You are healed. Get up and walk.” I felt the peace and healing power on my body. I immediately got up and walked. I praised and thanked God for the miracle.

Conversion of the Doctor

I reached my doctor with the news of my healing and he was amazed. He said: “your God is the true God. I must follow your God.” The doctor was Hindu and he asked me to teach him about our Church. After studying the faith, I baptized him and he became Catholic.

Following the message from my Guardian angel, I came to the United States on November 10, 1986 as a missionary Priest…Since June 1999, I have been pastor of St. Mary's Mother of Mercy Catholic Church in Macclenny, Florida.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

A trick

A young man, a student in one of our universities, was one day taking a walk with a professor, who was commonly called the students' friend, from his kindness to those who waited on his instructions.

As they went along, they saw lying in the path a pair of old shoes, which they supposed to belong to a poor man who was employed in a field close by, and who had nearly finished his day's work.

The student turned to the professor, saying: "Let us play the man a trick: we will hide his shoes, and conceal ourselves behind those bushes, and wait to see his perplexity when he cannot find them."

"My young friend," answered the professor, "we should never amuse ourselves at the expense of the poor. But you are rich, and may give yourself a much greater pleasure by means of the poor man. Put a coin into each shoe, and then we will hide ourselves and watch how the discovery affects him."

The student did so, and they both placed themselves behind the bushes close by.

The poor man soon finished his work, and came across the field to the path where he had left his coat and shoes. While putting on his coat he slipped his foot into one of his shoes; but feeling something hard, he stooped down to feel what it was, and found the coin.

Astonishment and wonder were seen upon his countenance. He gazed upon the coin, turned it round, and looked at it again and again. He then looked around him on all sides, but no person was to be seen. He now put the money into his pocket, and proceeded to put on the other shoe; but his surprise was doubled on finding the other coin.

His feelings overcame him; he fell upon his knees, looked up to heaven and uttered aloud a fervent thanksgiving, in which he spoke of his wife, sick and helpless, and his children without bread, whom the timely bounty, from some unknown hand, would save from perishing.

The student stood there deeply affected, and his eyes filled with tears. "Now," said the professor, "are you not much better pleased than if you had played your intended trick?"

The youth replied, "You have taught me a lesson which I will never forget. I feel now the truth of those words, which I never understood before: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'"

-- Author Unknown

Sunday, 19 September 2010

A glimpse of the Pope

Today is the final day of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain. I was eager to catch a glimpse of him, so early this morning I drove to the Apostolic Nunciature, Wimbledon, where he was staying. He was due to leave the embassy of the Holy See at 8am and head to Birmingham for the final leg of his tour.

Apostolic Nunciature, Wimbledon

There was a moderate crowd of people already there when I arrived, waiting patiently. More people came as time passed. I saw the faces of people from many different parts of the world, and there wasn't a single protestor in sight - just the Catholic faithful.

Catholic faithful waiting to see the Pope

A small group of young ladies occasionally sang “We love you Benedict, we do. We love you Benedict, we do,” and “We love you Papa, we do. We love you Papa, we do.” Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh - Cardinal Keith O’Brien - and Archbishop of Westminster - Vincent Nichols - as well as a few other bishops arrived by car. Archbishop Vincent Nichols, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, was kind enough to say hello.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales

At 8.17am, slightly behind schedule, Pope Benedict finally emerged to the delight of the crowd. The Pope was dressed in his familiar white cassock, white zucchetto and red shoes. He raised his hands and greeted the faithful. There was a real buzz in the crowd who enthusiastically cheered, waved and sang even more.

Pope waving to people from his car

A couple of minutes later the Pope got into his car and was whisked away to Wimbledon Park, where he was due to travel by helicopter to Birmingham for the final leg of his tour. It's not often I get an opportunity to see the head of my church, so I was delighted. So were the other people who came to see him too.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

9/11 overshadowed by controversy

Nine years on an angry America, still reeling in the wake of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, mourned the victims of the 9/11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. This year the anniversary was overshadowed by two controversies: the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’, and Pastor Terry Jones’ threat to burn copies of the Koran. Fortunately Pastor Jones did not go ahead with his stunt and everybody breathed a sigh of relief. Emotions had been running very high in the Muslim world. There had been protests in a number of countries, and President Yudhoyono of Indonesia warned that the act could threaten “peace and international security.” General Petraeus warned the event would endanger the lives of American servicemen and women.

I heard on BBC Radio 4 how Muslims in America were increasingly feeling under siege. I can understand why they feel uncomfortable right now with the acrimonious debate about the Ground Zero Mosque still raging, but I question whether they are really ‘under siege’. Even after the 9/11 attacks American Muslims did not face any major acts of retribution. I think that will be the case this time too. Whatever their feelings of victimization, they are a far cry from the real discrimination many Christian minorities face in many Muslim majority countries.

James Corum, Dean of the Baltic Defence College in Estonia, writes in The Telegraph:
In many Islamic countries, Christian minorities – including the descendants of the earliest Christian communities in the Middle East – suffer under laws that make them second-class citizens. Not only do they have fewer legal rights, but the exercise of their faith is cruelly regulated by governments in the name of Sharia. In America, we criticise the plan to build a mosque near the 9/11 murder site even while agreeing that American law provides the clear right of Muslims to do such a thing. But in many Muslim nations no Christian can build or even repair a church without approval (usually not forthcoming) from a hostile government ministry.

Much worse, murder, kidnappings, forced conversions and attacks against Christians by radical Muslims are common in the Islamic world, especially in the Middle East and in Pakistan. Every year, hundreds of Christians are murdered by religious fanatics. Even when a Muslim government disapproves of such violence, officials and police often stand aside and allow the attacks rather than confront a politically powerful radical Islam.

In short, Christians are today living in one of the great eras of persecution. That persecution comes from a minority of Muslims – but an influential minority. Christians should use this day to educate the Western public about the suffering of fellow Christians, and to confront peacefully the rulers and populations of Muslim nations with their failure to maintain rights supposedly guaranteed by the UN Charter.
The suffering of Christian minorities in many Muslim majority countries is largely ignored by the mainstream media. Western leaders are even aware of the issue but stay silent on the matter lest they complicate relations with Muslim countries. The consequences of Pastor Jones' actions if he had gone ahead with them would have been extremely severe for Christians living in Muslim majority contexts. The Koran is regarded by Muslims as the literal word of God transmitted from heaven, so to destroy it is the ultimate sacrilege. I’m sure Christ would not have approved of deliberately offending and provoking others to the point of violence. But He probably would approve of Christians standing up for the basic human rights of their brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is surprising that the eccentric pastor of a very small Pentecostal church in Florida, known for previous public-seeking misadventures, managed to attract so much attention. Fuelled by the internet, 24 hour news and media sensationalism the story grew bigger and bigger until it became the main news of the day. Pastor Jones certainly didn’t speak for the vast majority of Christians or America. The event was condemned by all mainstream Christian churches, President Obama, Hillary Clinton as well as many ordinary Americans. Yet the media handed this man a megaphone to speak to the world. I’m sure there are some sections of the media that are secretly delighted a ‘Christian pastor’ could have made such a huge error of judgement. They have milked this story for it was worth.

Unfortunately I feel many Muslims throughout the world still feel Pastor Jones represents Christians and the west. This is what some of the more extreme elements within Islam want Muslims to believe. A sense of victimization and hurt only aids their agenda. For this the media must take some of the blame.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Persecution: Swaroopa's story

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)

In August 2008 the worst anti-Christian violence in the history of independent India broke out in the state of Orissa. More 50,000 people were forced to flee their homes. Many of their houses, churches and schools were destroyed, and more than 40 people were killed.

I would like to tell the true story of Swaroopa Naik (courtesy Barnabus Fund, a UK based charity working for persecuted Christians around the world).

Escape in the jungle

Swaroopa was brought up in a Christian home with her brother and two sisters. Her father, Sunil, is a farmer. On Monday 25 August 2008 the family was busy with the housework as usual while Swaroopa was having a bath. Suddenly she heard terrible noises outside, and running out of the house she saw her family rushing into the forest. Swaroopa ran too and was chased by the attackers, but she was quick enough to escape them.

Swaroopa eventually found her parents in the jungle. Taking shelter under a tree, they heard the dreadful sound of homes being destroyed and saw a plume of smoke rising into the sky. But Swaroopa says, "Both of my parents were consoled by the very thought that this tragic attack has been due to the fact that we believe in Jesus Christ and are Christians." "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven." (Matthew 5:10)

After a while the family heard the attackers coming along the path they themselves had taken, so they ran and hid themselves in the bush. The sunny weather changed to cloudy skies, and they prayed that the Lord would send rain. And then - a heavy downpour! The pursuers called off the chase and went back the way they came. Swaroopa and her parents praised God.

The Lord who provides

When the rain stopped the family went back to their village. There they found that their house had been reduced to a pile of ashes and debris. No one in the village would take them in for the night, so they returned to the jungle to shelter under the trees. Early next day they set off to escape the pursuing assailants.

In the evening Swaroopa and her family reached Phulbani, a large township, where they felt safe enough to stay for two weeks. After this they moved on to Cuttack, the largest city in Orissa, where they stayed with a family member.

After the anti-Christian violence had subsided, Swaroopa's parents were able to return to their village to visit what was left of their house. They learned from their pastor about a ministry (supported by Barnabus Fund) that offers vocational training to young people displaced from Orissa by the violence. This is designed to equip them to return to the region later, not only to live there, but also to make a positive contribution to the community and to witness for Christ.

Swaroopa obtained a college place to study nursing and midwifery and is about to complete her first year of training. She writes, "We thanked and rejoiced in the Lord for having miraculously saved our lives and now for providing me with an opportunity to become a nurse. The Lord is really 'Jehovah Jirah' (the Lord who provides)."

Final thoughts

Swaroopa’s story is both touching and uplifting. It demonstrates the reality of persecution that Christians often have to suffer, particularly in non-Western countries, simply for their faith. Despite their hardship, Swaroopa and her family did not renounce their faith but trusted in the Lord. Their faith was rewarded, for in their darkest hours they saw the Lord guiding them. They came out of the experience with their faith strengthened, not weakened.

Anti-Christian hatred is nothing new. From New Testament times to the present day Christians have had to suffer for bearing witness to Christ. Jesus warned his disciples that this would be the case, but those who persevered would be rewarded in heaven. We too must heed this message. Do not cower and renounce your faith, even if you are persecuted, but boldly witness to Christ. That way you show your fidelity and love of Christ, for which you will be rewarded.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Visit to Hampton Court Palace

Yesterday was a bank holiday in UK, and taking advantage of the sunny weather I visited Hampton Court Palace with my wife and daughter. The palace is only about five miles from where I live. It is on the banks of the River Thames in the London suburb of Hampton.

We didn't go inside the palace but wandered around the gardens. The gardens were pretty and immaculately well kept. The British have a love of gardens that date back to Roman times. On this particular day, we were fortunate to see a re-enactment of events in the sixteenth century with actors dressed in costumes of the time. There were a lot of people there who came to see it.

The palace was the residence of Henry VIII, the Tudor king who reigned in England from 1509 to 1547. He wanted a son in order to enable the Tudor family to rule England for a long time. Since his first wife failed to bear him a son he tried to annul his marriage but the Pope refused. Henry broke away from the Catholic Church, established the Church of England with him as the head and remarried.

Henry married six times in total. His wives were Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr. The following rhyme describe their fate:

"Divorced, Beheaded, Died
Divorced, Beheaded, Survived"

Although we did not have time to go into the palace, we enjoyed walking around the beautiful gardens.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Europe without Christianity: a dire prospect

Europeans are turning away from Christianity in greater numbers than ever as Europe becomes more and more secular. It’s part of a trend that has been ongoing for over a hundred years. In 1900, more than 80% of Christians lived in Europe and America. Today 60% live in the developing world. In some countries like Portugal, Ireland and Spain there is still a sizeable practicing Christian community, but the overwhelming majority of Europeans are Christian in name only. More and more claim to atheists. As there’s a fine distinction between nonbelievers of various kinds - atheists, agnostics, sceptics and humanists – the majority of Europeans are practically atheists because they are not religious. This trend of secularism runs counter to the trends seen in other parts of world where religion is growing.

The atheist German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, claimed in many of his works that “God is dead”. Nietzsche hated religion, and most of all he hated Christianity. He felt Christianity was a “slave morality” designed for losers, which Nietzsche explained its immense popularity. Nietzsche condemned the Christian God for keeping a check on the strong men of this world and exalting the lowly. He developed the concept of ├╝bermensch (or “overman”), a type of superior human being, who through his “will to power” could bring down false ideals and moral codes of his day. His ideas had a big influence on Nazi ideology.

I’m reading a wonderful book by Dinesh D’Souza called “What’s So Great About Christianity”. In chapter seven he gives a warning about Europe’s future regarding its increasing secularization and abandonment of Christian beliefs:

The life of the West, Nietzsche said, is based on Christianity. The values of the West are based on Christianity. Some of these values seem to have taken a life of their own, and this gives us the illusion that we can get rid of Christianity and keep the values. This, Nietzsche says, is an illusion. Our Western values are what Nietzsche terms “shadows of gods”. Remove the Christian foundation, and the values go too.

True, values like equal dignity and equal rights will persist for a period out of sheer unthinking habit. But their influence will erode. Consider the example of secular Europe. Secularization has been occurring in Europe for well over a century, and for a while it seemed as if the decline of Christianity would have no effect on Western morality or Western social institutions. Yet if Nietzsche is right we would expect to see the decline of Christianity also result, over time, in the decline of one of the great legacies of Christianity, the nuclear family. We would expect to see high rates of divorce and births out of wedlock. And that is what we do see. Secular trends in America have produced the same results, which are not as advanced in America because Christianity has not eroded as much here as it has in Europe.

As secularism continues, Nietzsche forecasts that new values radically inconsistent with the Christian ones – the restoration of infanticide, demands for radical redefinition of the family, the revival of eugenic theories of human superiority – will begin to emerge. These, too, are evident in our day. And they are some of the motives for attacking Christianity and insisting that its values are outmoded and should be replaced.

Unfortunately for the critics of Christianity, even the values care about will, according to Nietzsche, eventually collapse. Consider our beliefs in human equality and the value of human life. We may say we believe in human equality, but why do we hold this belief? It is product of the Christian idea of the spiritual equality of souls. We may insist we believe that all human life has dignity and value, but this, too, is the outgrowth of a Christian tradition in which each person is the precious creation of God. There is no secular basis for these values, and when secular writers defend them they always employ unrecognized Christian assumptions.

In sum, the death of Christianity must also mean the gradual extinction of values such as human dignity, the right against torture, and the rights of equal treatment asserted by women, minorities, and the poor. Do we want to give these up also? If we cherish the distinctive ideals of Western Christianity, and believe as I do that they have enormously benefited our civilization and the world, then whatever our religious convictions, and even if we have none, we will not rashly try to hack at the religious roots from which they spring. On the contrary, we will not hesitate to acknowledge, not only privately but also publicly, the central role that Christianity has played and still plays in the things that matter to us.

I have to say I couldn’t agree more with D’Souza here. Europeans have been swayed by all sorts of different ideologies that are fundamentally contrary to Christian beliefs over the last century with disastrous consequences. If the current trend of secularization continues in Europe, I fear for its future. Europe will be a far worse place without Christianity.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Isle of Wight trip

Last week I went with my wife, daughter, mum and dad for a holiday to the Isle of Wight, a small island off the south coast of England. Each day was spent visiting a different and we had a lovely time. Here’s a summary of what we did.

Monday 2 August 2010

Drove from London to Portsmouth and took the car ferry to Fishbourne. The crossing took around 40 minutes and was most comfortable. The ferry was called St Cecilia.

After reaching Fishbourne, in the north of the island, we headed to Carrisbrooke Castle near the town of Newport. The castle was built by the Normans following their conquest of England in 1066. Although parts of the structure have eroded over time much of it is still intact and wonderfully preserved. There are a number of buildings within the walls of the fortress. Going up to the top of the shell keep we got a great view of the surrounding countryside. The castle is a treat for people interested in English history for it has seen over 800 years of service. One of the castle’s most famous residents was King Charles I, who was imprisoned there after his defeat in the English Civil War.

From Carisbrooke Castle we headed to Shanklin, a town in the east of the island, and checked into our guesthouse. Shanklin has a sandy beach and is quite touristy. When we visited the beach in the evening there wasn’t much of a crowd. My daughter Anya made a sand castle. In the distance I saw ships crossing the English Channel.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

After breakfast we went to Robin Hill Park in Downend. The park is a great place for children, having lots of rides and other activities. Anya particularly enjoyed the Toboggan Run. I liked the falconry show, which featured a number of birds of prey including the European Eagle Owl, Harris Hawk and Saker Falcon. A ride on Colossus, a swinging galleon boat ride, really shook up the full English breakfast in my stomach. A few more swings on the ride and I could easily have thrown up on the person in front! We spent four hours in the park. It’s possible for children to spend the whole day there.

Our next stop was the Isle of Wight Zoo in Sandown, another seaside town not far from Shanklin. The zoo has a large collection of Indian tigers and African lions. We arrived in time to see the lions being fed. There was a white tiger called Zena and a white lion called Casper – two very rare species. I had never seen a white tiger or lion before, so this was quite exciting. Posters warned about the sad the plight of the tiger whose numbers are continuing to diminish worldwide.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

After breakfast we made our way to Needles Park on Alum Bay at the western extreme of the island. We passed along narrow roads under canopies of tall trees and across the countryside, past fields containing various crops, sheep and cattle. At Needles Park we saw glass being made and took the chairlift ride down to the beach. It is possible to go the edge of Alum Bay and see the Needles, which are a series of chalk stacks that protrude into the sea, but we didn’t do that as the weather was windy and rainy. In the Sand Shop, Anya created her own souvenir by filling in a plastic shape with different shades of Alum Bay sand. Like Robin Hill Park, Needles Park was full of children and their parents.

From Alum Bay we headed east again to Havenstreet Station and boarded the Isle of Wight Steam Railway. This really was a trip back to a bygone era when steam trains were the norm. The hissing of the engine and the smell of steam brought back memories of childhood train journeys in India. The staff, who were mostly volunteers, were friendly and helpful. The train went to Smallbrook Junction and back, and then to Wootton station and back. It was a pleasant ride across unspoiled, beautiful countryside.

Thursday 5 August 2010

After checking out of our guesthouse, we travelled to Osborne House in East Cowes. This 342 acres estate was Queen Victoria’s summer residence, and it certainly was befitting place for her and her family. There were beautiful sculptures, paintings and frescoes that adorned different rooms. I particularly liked the Indian style Durbar Room, which was a celebration of Queen Victoria’s role as
Empress of India. Here there were the finest works of art from India, presented to Victoria by Indian rulers. Complementing the house were lovely gardens, a summer house and the Swiss Cottage, originally built for the royal children for their education. This was a great place for adults with a love for history as well as antiques (like my parents).

In the afternoon we the caught ferry to Portsmouth. This ferry was called St Clare. After a short visit to Portsmouth Roman Catholic Cathedral we headed back home.

Final thoughts

What was clearly noticeable was the slower pace of life on the Isle of Wight. The island is heavily dependent on tourism although it does have a strong agricultural heritage. The beaches, the hills, the green countryside and quaint little towns, villages and churches were a joy to see. It was a refreshing break from the hustle and bustle of London. Fortunately the weather, always an unpredictable factor in any holiday in the UK, was good during our stay. Only on the third day did we experience some rain. Our guesthouse proprietors – Graham and Sally – did their best to make us feel welcome, for which we are very grateful. Anya so liked the place she wanted to stay longer. Being such a pleasant little island, I’m sure we’ll be visiting the island again sometime in the future.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Book review: "Holy Warriors: A Journey into the Heart of Indian Fundamentalism" by Edna Fernandes

Not only is India home to all the major faiths, it is also host to virtually every type of religious fanatic. But what drives these “holy warriors” of various faiths? Their actions sometimes have tragic consequences. In this a fascinating, disturbing, brave and at times funny book, British Indian journalist Edna Fernandes explores the world of Indian fundamentalism. By travelling to areas of past conflicts and interviewing a number of key figures, she reveals an interesting picture of a country where the forces of fundamentalism are very much alive as in the past.

In Jammu and Kashmir, the only Muslim majority state in India, Fernandes finds a region still suffering from the wounds of a violent insurgency that broke out in 1989. Between 40,000 and 100,000 people are thought to have been killed here. Both local Muslims and outside agitators supported by Pakistan have been involved in the militancy. Kashmir is the unfinished business of partition: for the militants and Pakistan it is a question of territory in the name of Islam, while for India it is a question of territory in the name of secularism. A fall out of the insurgency is that hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri Brahmins have had to flee their ancestral homeland due to threats from militants, and their tragic plight is borne out in the book.

In the small, rural town of Deoband in the Hindu heartland of Uttar Pradesh, Fernandes visits a madrassa known as Darul-Uloom, the House of Knowldge. This is no ordinary school; it is the second most important Islamic academic institution in the world. Here the gates of ‘ijtihad’ (independent thinking) are firmly closed and a rigid, puritanical version of Islam is taught. Darul-Uloom was established soon after the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and since then thousands of Deoband-affiliated madrassas have been established worldwide, particularly in the tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Although Muslim leaders in Darul-Uloom stress on the peaceful message of Islam, some of its sister schools teach a more radicalised version of it.

Fernandes is from a Goan Catholic background and there are some delightful reminisces about her childhood throughout the book. It was in Goa in the sixteenth century that St Francis Xavier, outraged by the licentiousness of the Portuguese colonialists as well as how Indian converts to Christianity continued their earlier religious practices, requested the Inquisition. The Inquisition only ended in 1812. Fernandes finds a Goa today that is changing fast. On the one hand, there’s a rising Hindu conscientiousness with the BJP party trying to rake up old history and undermine the church; and on the other, there’s a lot of external influences from Delhiites, foreigners and people from Mumbai. While old churches are razed to make way for new apartment blocks and hotels, criminal gangs from Russia bring prostitution and drugs.

The Protestant powers that came to India were initially slower than their Catholic counterparts to see the opportunity for missionary work, but eventually they too encouraged it. Despite their obvious contributions to education and healthcare, Christian missionaries in India remain controversial. They have been accused by Hindu hardliners of using forceful and fraudulent means to convert Hindus to Christianity. In recent years there have been attacks on Christians including priests, nuns and missionaries.

One area where Christian missionaries did have a big impact was the north-east. Here the overwhelming majority of the population is Christian. In the restive state of Nagaland, Fernandes encounters a people who have been fighting for a separate homeland. The Nagas are not Aryan or Dravidian but of Mongoloid stock. They were one-time tribal headhunters before they were converted by American Baptists in the nineteenth century. In terms of culture, language, race and religion they see little in common with other Indians. “Nagaland for Christ” is the call of the Naga nationalists, but Fernandes is sceptical of their chances of success as they have little support from powerful external allies.

In Punjab, Fernandes finds the situation is a lot calmer today than at the height of Sikh militancy in the eighties. The storming of the Golden Temple by the Indian Army to flush out armed militants, and the gunfight that ensued at Sikhism’s holiest shrine, led to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in October 1984. In retaliation many Sikhs were openly butchered in Delhi and other parts of northern India, which only made calls for a separate Sikh nation, Khalistan, even louder. The man who led the crackdown on the Khalistan movement was K. P. S. Gill, former Director General of Police (DGP) Punjab, and there’s a fascinating interview with him in the book. By the mid-nineties there was little support left for Khalistan as the activities of the militants didn’t endear them well with the community. However, a sense of grievance felt by Sikhs remains because grave human rights abuses were committed and the guilty were not punished.

The final part of the book deals with Hindu nationalists. There’s a vivid account of the Gujarat riots in 2002 in which Muslim owned businesses, homes, apartments, vehicles and places of worship were systematically targeted and destroyed by Hindu fanatics. The violence left at least 2,000 people dead and up to 140,000 Muslims in refugee camps. Fernandes was able to get a good picture of what actually happened because she visited the area just a few weeks after the riots began. There was evidence that Narendra Modi’s hard-line BJP government was complicit in the violence, yet it was retuned to power in the state elections later that year. The irony was that this all happened in the same state where Mahatma Gandhi was born.

There are interviews with two firebrand Hindu nationalist leaders - Bal Thackeray and Praveen Togadia. Thackeray formed Shiv Sena in 1966 to stop south Indians coming to Bombay and taking the jobs of Marathis; but as the city became a melting pot of people from all over India he transformed the prejudices of his party to be more explicitly anti-Muslim. To Thackeray the Muslims in India are the enemy within and they should always know their place. Togadia, leader of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), is arguably more extreme. He has publicly defended the Gujarat riots and called Sonia Gandhi “that Italian bitch”. He believes India should drop a nuclear bomb on Pakistan to be rid of terrorism forever. There’s also an interview with Yukta Mookhey, former Miss India and Miss World, who campaigned for the BJP in 2004 general elections. Yukta is passionate about her country; she wants to help the common man and be remembered for more than beauty, but she naively thinks the BJP will help her fulfil all this.

There’s a glimpse into the world of the RSS, the mother of all Hindu nationalist organisations. At a RSS shakha in Delhi Fernandes finds men dressed in khaki shorts doing marches and exercises. They may look like boy scouts but their ideology is far from comical. Based on 1930s European fascist movements, RSS wants to create a theocratic Hindu state in which the minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians, are reduced to being second-class citizens. Central to the RSS ideology is the belief that Hindu submissiveness is to blame for India’s turbulent past in which the Hindu has been the constant victim. First, the Hindu was the victim of the Muslim invaders, and then the British imperialists. Today, he is the victim of the minorities and Pakistan.

This is an interesting book which I enjoyed reading just like the author’s other book “The Last Jews of Kerala”. It is well written and quite objective. Fernandes is a good observer, has an eye for detail and brings her characters to life. She is not shy to express some of her her own views. Where the book does fall short is seeing the bigger picture. How strong are the secular forces in India? To what extent do class and caste play in sectarian violence? How has bad governance played a role? What about expatriate Indians and their influence on fundamentalist groups? The book is not an extensive study, but it does give a valuable overview of the various sectarian fault lines in the country today.

Since the book was published in 2007 there have been more instances of terrorism and sectarian violence in India. This shows, as highlighted in the book, there are clearly some leaders who are willing to exploit and fan the flames of bigotry. Communalism is very rarely spontaneous and nearly always manufactured. One only hopes that with time things will improve. That of course remains to be seen.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Bono on Jesus

Bono is the lead singer of the Irish rock band U2. He was born in Dublin as the son of a Catholic father and Protestant mother. U2 was one of the most successful bands in the 1980s and 1990s with hits like "Mysterious Ways," "Where The Streets Have No Name," and "Beautiful Day." There are few people in the music industry like Bono who have done so much for the poor and hungry in places like Africa. He was involved in Bob Geldof's Band Aid and Live Aid projects in the 1980s, and later helped Geldof organize Live 8 project in 2005. He has successfully enlisted the help of powerful leaders in a variety of spheres including government, philanthropic organizations, religious institutions, popular media, the business world, as well as spearheading new organizational networks himself, for global humanitarian relief. Another cause he has firmly believed in is racial equality. He wrote a song called “Silver and Gold” for Steve Van Zandt’s Artists Against Apartheid, and participated in Van Zandt’s anti-apartheid single "Sun City". Bono and his band-mate, The Edge, attended the Festival Against Racism in Hamburg, Germany, in 1993. He has received three nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize, and was deservedly awarded an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II in 2006.

Once in an interview with French music journalist and novelist Michka Assayas, Bono was asked what he thought about Jesus. Many people, non-Christians as well as non-religious, believe Jesus was a great teacher and reformer but they are reluctant to call him the Son of God. This is what Bono had to say:

Assayas: Christ has his rank among the world’s great thinkers. But Son of God, isn’t that far-fetched?

Bono: No, it's not far-fetched to me. Look, the secular response to the Christ story always goes like this: he was a great prophet, obviously a very interesting guy, had a lot to say along the lines of other great prophets, be they Elijah, Muhammad, Buddha, or Confucius. But actually Christ doesn't allow you that. He doesn't let you off that hook. Christ says: No. I'm not saying I'm a teacher, don't call me teacher. I'm not saying I'm a prophet. I'm saying: "I'm the Messiah." I'm saying: "I am God incarnate." And people say: No, no, please, just be a prophet. A prophet, we can take. You're a bit eccentric. We've had John the Baptist eating locusts and wild honey, we can handle that. But don't mention the "M" word! Because, you know, we're gonna have to crucify you. And he goes: No, no. I know you're expecting me to come back with an army, and set you free from these creeps, but actually I am the Messiah. At this point, everyone starts staring at their shoes, and says: Oh, my God, he's gonna keep saying this. So what you're left with is: either Christ was who He said He was—the Messiah—or a complete nutcase. I mean, we're talking nutcase on the level of Charles Manson. This man was like some of the people we've been talking about earlier. This man was strapping himself to a bomb, and had "King of the Jews" on his head, and, as they were putting him up on the Cross, was going: OK, martyrdom, here we go. Bring on the pain! I can take it. I'm not joking here. The idea that the entire course of civilization for over half of the globe could have its fate changed and turned upside-down by a nutcase, for me, that's far-fetched …

What Bono is saying here is that Jesus was either mad, like self-proclaimed messiahs like Charles Manson and David Koresh, or he was who he said he was. Given that a mad man wouldn’t have had such an impact or inspired as many followers as Jesus has done, we have good reasons to accept Jesus’ claims and centre our lives on him. The ultimate proof of his identity is, of course,the Resurrection for which there were many witnesses at the time. When we centre our lives on Jesus we become less self-centred and more self-giving. In an industry which is well known for its eccentric and narcissistic characters, Bono deserves credit for standing up for fine humanitarian causes.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Mangalore plane crash: lessons need to be learnt

India had experienced a relatively safe period in civil aviation history over the last decade until the morning of Saturday 22 May 2010, when Air India Express flight IX 812 from Dubai overshot the runway at Bajpe Airport, Mangalore, and plunged into the valley below, killing almost everyone onboard. Air India Express is a low-cost subsidiary of India’s national carrier Air India, and most of the passengers on this flight would have been low-income expatriate workers in the Gulf. Only eight passengers managed to jump out of a gap in the fuselage and escape, while the remaining 158 passengers and crew were killed. Many of these people would have been looking forward to spending a short break with their family and friends. Sadly, apart from the lucky few, they met their end soon after their Boeing 737-800 aircraft touched down.

Already the suspicion is falling on the commander of the plane, Capt Zlatko Glusica, who was a British national of Serbian origin. Eyewitness reports suggest the plane landed some 2,000 feet past the touchdown zone. The plane then veered off the runway, after suffering a suspected tyre burst, and crashed through the airport perimeter wall to the valley below. Bajpe Airport has a reputation for being a difficult airport because it is located on a hilltop with a drop of 100 metres on all sides. Although the runway is sufficient in length for most small aircraft, such as the Boeing 737, the margin for error is small with little overshoot space. Pilots are required to undergo special training before they operate from Mangalore.

The “black boxes” and the cockpit flight recorder, which have been recovered from the crash site, will be crucial in piecing together exactly what went wrong. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in India will be responsible for carrying out the investigation. However, one must bear in mind that the DGCA is an integral part of the government of India, and whatever its findings they will not be perceived to be truly independent. Previous investigations have tended to pin the blame on the pilot, even though other factors may have been involved, and an air of mystery still surrounds many past accidents. "To my knowledge in the last 50 years no inquiry report has been made public," Kapil Kaul, head of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Aviation in South Asia, told Reuters.

The Indian aviation industry has enjoyed phenomenal growth over the past decade with a number of new private airlines starting operations and many Indians taking to the skies. India’s air safety record has been remarkably good during this time. A number of near misses in recent years at Indian airports, including Mumbai and Delhi, have, however, raised question marks about whether the infrastructure is keeping pace with the growth in air traffic in the country. From personal experience, I think there is a general problem with all types of infrastructure not keeping pace with economic progress in India. This adversely affects safety. "Safety standards in Indian aviation have been on the wane for the last six years. Efforts are being made to correct the drift, but the systematic rot is so deep ... we are not likely to see any improvement in safety unless drastic changes are made," A. Ranganathan, an airline safety consultant and pilot instructor, told Reuters.

I do hope the DGCA will conduct a proper investigation of this accident. They owe it to the victims, their families, and Indian air passengers in general. Apart from the obvious suspicion of pilot error were there other factors that could have contributed to the disaster? Was there any communication problem between the Serbian pilot and his Indian co-pilot? Were they sufficiently well trained? Was fatigue a factor? Was the runway dangerous? Did the airline’s procedures contribute in any way? Is Mangalore waiting to happen at other “table-top” airports in the country like Kozhikode? This would be a good time to carry out such a review. It is quite easy to blame the dead pilot for the crash, for he has no voice to defend himself. The attitude should be to do as thorough an investigation as possible and learn from the mistakes in order to avert the possibility of a similar accident in the future.

It has emerged that the Environment Support Group (ESG) had objected to the building of the second runway at Bajpe Airport on the grounds that the design simply did not conform to the most basic national and international standards of airport design. Twice it took the case to the Karnataka High Court, but the case was dismissed. Finally the ESG petitioned the Supreme Court, which too dismissed the plea while emphasising that laws and norms be followed while expanding the airport. Not heeding this direction, construction of the second runway began in 2004 without a techno-economic assessment, feasibility study, or even a comprehensive Environment Impact Assessment. "This was no accident, but apparently the failure of officials in ensuring proper construction of the second runway at the airport resulted in the tragedy," alleged Leo F Saldanha, coordinator of ESG. The ESG had previously suggested a more appropriate location for the second runway would have been towards north of the old runway. This option was not even considered, as the acquisition of such lands would displace about seventy large landholding families that were well connected politically.

I do have the highest regard for Indian pilots, who I believe can be matched to the best in the world. Having flown into some dicey Indian airports in the past, such as the old Cochin Airport, which offer very little room for error, I know that it was the skill of the pilot more than anything else that ensured nothing went wrong. But relying on the skills of the pilot alone without the support of the underlying infrastructure is risky, especially at a time when Indian aviation is experiencing high growth. In an industry in which safety is critical it is important that standards are not compromised. It is essential that proper investments be continuously made to ensure the highest levels of safety are always maintained. If India is serious about the safety of its air passengers, it must have an independent air safety board which is transparent and free of political manipulation.

Despite this tragic accident, air travel remains incredibly safe. It is statistically safer for you to travel on a commercial airliner than it is for you to cross the road. Improvements in technology and lessons learnt from past mistakes have made air travel safer. Air travel is increasing worldwide. However, the fact remains that since an aircraft is a machine and a human being is responsible for flying it, there is always the risk of something going wrong. The best we can do is to minimise that risk, which involves learning the lessons from accidents such as this one in Mangalore and taking safety seriously.