Associated Press Tsunami survivors cling tightly to faith across ravaged region

By Brian Murphy
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia - When the midday call to prayers sounded, the boys put down their brooms and entered the mosque. Their feet were caked with the fetid mud left when the tsunami floods finally receded.

Side by side, six high school students on Saturday touched their foreheads to the white stone floor of the Raya Baiturrahman mosque, which was once covered with bodies that had washed into the courtyard. It was the first time any of the boys had seen a corpse.

It also was when they started to pray each day.

"Everything changed," said 17-year-old Takou Rizky, who was among the student volunteers cleaning the white-and-turquoise mosque in Banda Aceh, the center of international relief teams in Indonesia.

"We saw the fury of God. We saw it face to face."

It's heard across the giant arc of Indian Ocean coast ravaged by the Dec. 26 disaster: survivors digging into their faiths to try to make sense of the tragedies and cope with what's ahead. Even in an age that offers instant answers - an offshore earthquake kicking up massive waves that wiped out more than 157,000 lives - the timeless questions of spirituality and divinity remain intact across battered shores that touch four major religions: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity.

Some firebrands see an angry deity who sought to punish a sinful world. Others take solace in worship or by celebrating the shared bonds between the faiths. And nearly all the religious responses to the tsunami eventually flirt with a bottomless riddle: How could a gentle God let this happen?

This is a quandary as old as faith itself, said Randall O'Brien, chairman of the religion department at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who has studied issues of suffering and faith.

"This is a core theology that cuts across faiths: the idea that life is fragile and bad things can happen to good people," he said. "It's an ageless question that roars back strongly in times of crisis like this."

Along the coast of western Indonesia, where entire towns were washed off the map, a construction worker named Dahlan walked 195 miles from his job site to his hometown of Banda Aceh. He arrived to find out his brother was missing and presumed dead.

He now goes each day to pray at a mosque.

"I was never very religious before," said Dahlan, who like many Indonesians goes by one name. "But I find I'm only really at peace these days when I'm in the mosque. There are moments I get angry, though. I ask God: Why, why, why?"

Divine retribution, some tell their followers.

A radical Saudi cleric, Mohammad Saleh al-Munajjid, claimed the water rose to strike non-Muslim vacationers "who used to sprawl all over the beaches and in pubs overflowing with wine" during Christmas break. Yet most of the victims were from Indonesia, the most populous Muslim majority nation.

In Sri Lanka, a statue of Buddha in the southern town of Galle did not topple when the waves washed over an area near a bus terminal. A Buddhist monk, Sunama, considered it a sign.

"The people are not living according to religious virtues," he said. "Nature has given them some punishment because they are not following the path of the Lord Buddha. The people have to learn their lesson."

A Roman Catholic priest from St. Mary's Church in Colombo cast the blame wider.

"This is a punishment from God because everybody is leading a wretched life," said the Rev. Lucian Dep. "All of us are to be blamed for the tsunami. There is no sense of modesty or religiosity anymore. People have gone so far away from God. It's a message to say, 'Look, I'm the boss."'

The small band of doomsayers may draw much attention. But simple acts across the region showed a remarkable sense of community in places where clashes pit faith against faith.

Buddhists and Hindus visited each others' temples in the days after the tsunami. In India, Muslims allowed Christians and Hindus to bury 200 corpses in mausoleum grounds of a 16th-century Islamic healer in the southern town of Nagore. Riots in 2002 between Hindus and Muslims in India left more than 1,000 people dead.

"When it comes to natural disasters, we realize how helpless we are in the face of natural events and how, in fact, we are one people on this planet and we have to pull together," said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, deputy chairman for social sciences and humanities at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.

In the fishing hamlets of southern India, villagers made offerings to appease "mother" sea by offering milk and burning pungent camphor. Some believe that natural disasters happen in places where good is temporarily overwhelmed by evil.

"The mother has butchered her own children," said M. Chelladurai, 49, from the fishing village of Nambair Nagar. "Either there is no God, or God must be cruel to do this."