Understanding nature's power


HAMBANTOTA, Sri Lanka - Not long after losing 24 relatives, including his wife and three of his four children, Mohammad Sumanthra Jainudeen stood over the freshly made grave of his 16-year-old daughter and proclaimed that he was very happy.

His was not the awkwardly smiling front sometimes offered here by men and women who do not yet comprehend the loss of their families and homes. Jainudeen, who is active in his mosque in this predominantly Muslim town, believes he understands very well what happened when his house and his neighbors' and relatives' houses were destroyed by last month's tsunamis.

"The Koran says at the end of the world, these things happen, so we take it as it is, and we are happy," he said. "The people of strong faith are still living. Those with wavering faith were taken by Allah." Then Jainudeen's serious expression broke into a smile over his thick salt-and-pepper beard.

"We believe the end of the world is close," he said.

Dressed in a white robe and skullcap, seated now within sight of the burial grounds of his daughter and other Muslims who died that day, he spoke with a tone of assurance. "So the message is you have to have strong faith in Allah and you will be saved."

If religion gives people structures for coping with catastrophe, Jainudeen has constructed from his Islamic faith a fortress for his mind, heart and soul. For every mosque, temple, monastery, shrine and church destroyed by the earthquake and sea surges of Dec. 26, there are Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Protestants and Catholics who have constructed rationales - sometimes doomsday visions - to explain the mysterious, murderous power of nature.

In Sri Lanka, which has struggled for decades with ethnic and religious conflict, a number of religious leaders and believers said in the first days after the disaster that nature was trying to tell Sri Lankans to put aside their hatreds and years of battles that have scarred the land.

The predominantly Hindu Tamil minority has historically suffered discrimination at the hands of the Buddhist Sinhalese majority, a conflict that sparked civil war in the country's northeast. Protestant and Catholic churches and Muslim mosques have been the targets of anti-Christian and anti-Muslim violence over the years at the hands of extremist Buddhists. In eastern Sri Lanka, Hindu-Christian tensions were apparently behind a grenade attack in recent days that left three dead and 37 injured, according to published reports.

"It is high time for us to sit together, come together and live together, and stop destroying nature," said the Rev. Charles Hewawasam, pastor of the Shrine of Our Lady of Matara, which overlooks the water on the southern coast.

Hewawasam said that in the week after this Christmas, he gave last rites over so many bodies before they were hurriedly buried in mass graves that there was no time to determine each person's religion. "I never checked whether you are a Catholic, or a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Tamil," he said.

But beneath the unifying spirit of both mourning and rebuilding, the aftermath of the tsunamis have also shown that nature can reinforce the divisions of religion. For some Sri Lankans, the scale of destruction imbued the tsunamis with the specter of God's wrath and doomsday.

If Jainudeen in the predominantly Muslim town of Hambantota was hailing the awesome power of Allah, S. Jothipala in the southwestern town of Galle was marveling at the awesome power of Buddha and the Hindu gods.

"It's a curse of the gods," said Jothipala, who like some Buddhists here, also worships Hindu gods.

Jothipala thinks he has good reason to believe his gods are the right ones. Less than 50 yards from the water, he built a small shrine to Buddha and Hindu gods; though the tsunamis destroyed most of the shrine and the buildings around it, the main shrine wall and all of the divine statues survived. He stood on top of rubble in front of the remaining wall, boasted of the surviving statues, and declared that the people who died and lost everything had suffered "because of their sins."

"Buddhism is a very powerful religion," Jothipala said. "Other people do not treat it that way, so this is to show that Buddhism is a very powerful religion."

Some mythmaking had the power to transcend religion. Some in the coastal areas of Sri Lanka lived in fear last week of a Sri Lankan fortune-teller's prediction that another catastrophe would befall the country between Jan. 3 and Jan 8. The same person, they said, had predicted that water would rise destructively in December.

A number of Sri Lankans prayed Saturday that midnight would come without a deluge. Midnight came and went, and Sri Lanka was still there.

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