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Last Updated: Monday, 17 January, 2005, 10:30 GMT
Tsunami: Believers defend their religions
Mosque in Teunom village, Indonesia
In parts of Indonesia mosques were the only buildings left standing
The scale and the horror of December's tsunami has led some atheists to argue that it provides further proof that there is no God.

If there were, the argument goes, He would not have allowed such suffering to happen.

But many in the worst-affected areas say their faith is unshaken.

Hindu teacher Gita Mahishwuarn, who lost family and friends as well as 95 children from orphanages in Sri Lanka which her organisation runs, said that the tsunami was "destined" to happen and there was no question of belief.

"The scale of the disaster is incomprehensible - but one thing we did not do was blame God for it," Ms Mahishwuarn told BBC World Service's Reporting Religion programme.

"This was a disaster that was destined to happen. It is what we do with the present, how we deal with it, that is the important thing from now on."

'Life to come'

Ms Mahishwuarn explained that one of the reasons Hindus have not questioned their faith to such an extent is that the religion has concepts of both a creator and a destroyer.

"Within the cycle of life there has to be birth, creation, preservation, and then destruction in order for life to continue," she said.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
Rowan Williams has made the point that we would be less than human if we didn't at least have a question going through our mind
Edgar Ruddock, USPG
"I wouldn't give this as an explanation of what happened here, because that would be to denigrate the people who lost their lives. But that's a natural cycle of life."

For Hindus, the end of this particular life is not the end complete end - the belief is that there are many other lives to follow.

This, Ms Mahishwuarn explained, helps to "get over the pain of what has happened, realising there is life to come."

She highlighted a news report which had featured a young English girl crying because the Sri Lankan person who had saved her had been washed away and died a few minutes later.

"What we say is that act of selflessness, giving his own life, means that in his future birth he will either merge with God or become a higher level," Ms Mahishwuarn said.

Another who has not lost faith despite suffering terribly from natural disaster is Akbar Panjalisaday, a 61-year-old father of five who survived the Bam earthquake in Iran which killed 30,000.

Mr Panjalisaday said that it was a "miracle" he survived the quake, but stressed that had he died, his family would certainly have thought of it as God's will.

"We are Muslims, and we believe a Muslim is subject to God's will," he said.

"Even at that time, I was calling God, I was calling my religion, the Imams, to help me.

"I do believe that it was a miracle."

Christian response

Mr Panjalisaday added that the feeling in Bam had briefly been that an all-merciful God had abandoned them.

However he said that this feeling had been quickly replaced by a renewed belief in God.

Women offering milk in the hope that Samudra Rajan will never return as a tsunami
Some Hindus believe the tsunami was Samudra Rajan, God of the sea
"After the disaster, unexpectedly, the number of people who attend religious ceremonies was much higher than in previous years," he stated.

"That was a way that people could relieve their pain. They would say, 'we have lost our parents, but we are still here - we still want God to help us'."

Meanwhile, Edgar Ruddock, of the Christian organisation United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, stressed that Christians should not lose their faith.

"My own Archbishop Rowan Williams has made the point that we would be less than human if we didn't at least have a question going through our mind - 'how do we make sense of all this?'" he said.

"But in terms of natural disaster, I think it's important to bear in mind that actually, it's the moving of tectonic plates that has allowed earth to rise out of the sea and human life to exist in the first place.

"So there is an element in which we are part of a process, part of something bigger."

Mr Ruddock highlighted Jesus' words on the cross: "My God, why have you forsaken me?"

"That ultimate cry of abandonment echoes very much the desperation of a mother whose child lets go of their hand in the middle of the storm, and the awful experience of parting and separation that goes with that," he said.

"But the Christian belief is grounded very deeply in a God who suffers with us, who weeps with us, and who grieves with us - but also who summons us to move beyond that, and to find hope, strength and encouragement for the future."


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