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dot life Monday, 21 May, 2001, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
When www spells World Wide Worship
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

The web is often thought of either as a lawless place, filled with pornographers, gamblers, criminals and anarchists, or a vast virtual shopping mall where hordes of crazed consumers are feverishly maxing out their credit cards.

Pope John Paul II
"The server is down, again?"
But the extent to which religious groups of all faiths use the web might come as something of a surprise to many users who assume that the net has only a profane, rather than a sacred, side.

Arguably, many religions have had an uneasy relationship with science, but some modern technologies are helping the devout keep their faith.

Radio Pape

The Vatican (which set up its own radio station back in 1931 with some help from Guglielmo Marconi) wasn't slow in embracing the web. Indeed, the Pope has said a place for Christ needs to be claimed in new media.

The Vatican has its own country code, .va, and the website of the Holy See (supported by servers named Gabriel, Michael and Raphael) hosts information in six languages for Catholics around the world.

A church collection plate
"Collection? Do you take plastic?"
Now, every major religion has a web presence. And many places of worship, be they churches, mosques or synagogues, keep their congregations informed via individual websites.

Some religious folk spend as much time in net chatrooms trying to show the ungodly the error of their ways as they do door-stepping people in their homes.

It doesn't stop there. The 100 or so parishioners of the Catholic St Anthony's Church in the Indian city of Bangalore don't drop coins in the plate when it is handed around - instead, they swipe a smartcard.

The card also holds biographical details of parishioners that, among other things, helps the parish priests match up prospective marriage partners.

Press 'p' to pray

Even the big technology firms have seen the benefit of helping people keep their faith. In March 1999, Samsung released a mobile phone that had a Bible and Christian hymnal and a Buddhist canon and songbook built in.

But some religions are also starting to go further than just using the web to aid worshippers.

A Greek Orthodox monk
Mobiles are keeping the faithful informed
The Call to Prayer lies at the heart of the Muslim faith, and it is no surprise that technology is being used to remind people when to pray.

Earlier this month, Muslim affairs website Azzan unveiled a call to prayer service that sends mobile-phone text-message reminders.

Muslims must pray five times a day, but the exact times change because the Sun rises and sets at different times. Soon, Azzan expects to be sending 125,000 SMS alerts per day.

Azzan is not the first to use SMS. In March last year, Preston-based Muslim website Patel's Corner Shop set up a similar service and now has extended it to include a wapsite that has Salaat times on it as well.

One German church has gone a step further by broadcasting a whole service via the phone and web.

Religious txt

Young Germans are especially voracious users of mobiles. The Protestant youth organisation of churches in Hanover signed up 1,400 people who received the pastor's greeting, an excerpt from the bible, a prayer and a blessing.

Since it was so successful in reaching people who otherwise would have nothing to do with religion, the church is planning more of the same.

James Poole, an IT consultant turned Church of England minister and the brains behind the Hosea website, says the net allows the curious to see what religion is all about without having to be seen going into a church.

Muslim worshippers at the Al Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem
The web can't replace being there in person
"I think people are increasingly ignorant about what happens in a church and what Christianity is all about. The web allows people to explore it anonymously within their own homes."

But, says Mr Poole, the web should not be seen as a substitute for congregation and worship.

"Church is not about services or buildings. It's about a community of believers getting together and you can never replace that."

Weely guide to getting buttoned up

See also:

11 Apr 01 | Entertainment
28 Nov 00 | UK
09 May 00 | Science/Nature
05 Aug 00 | UK Education
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