- The Washington Times - Monday, January 3, 2005

VELANKANNI, India — In his epic poem “Paradise Lost,” John Milton, the deeply religious Christian, explored untested faith. On the shores all around the Indian Ocean, people of all, religions have had their faith tested by the Dec. 26 tsunami.

“I’ve been a Christian all my life, but after this, I don’t want to have anything to do with God,” said A. Murugan, breaking down as he pointed to a photograph of himself with wife Mari, who died in her bedroom after saving their two sons from the giant waves.

Though a fisherman’s son, Mr. Murugan hated the sea. So for the past 25 years, he has worked at the shrine to the Virgin Mary in this coastal town, filling bottles with holy water and “blessed coconut oil” to be taken away by pilgrims.

“People are going through a terrible trauma, they’re asking God why He has let them down,” said Ray Kancharla, visiting Velankanni from New Delhi. “Disasters are milestones which change your perspective on life. It is through faith and healing that you attain peace again.”

Normally on New Year’s Eve, more than 150,000 pilgrims flock to a midnight Mass in Velankanni, popularly known as the “Lourdes of the East.”

But after several hundred pilgrims were killed in the Dec. 26 tsunami, the huge tin-roofed assembly hall next to the center’s chapel was empty by comparison for this year’s service, with an estimated 8,000 people attending.

On New Year’s Day, there were only a handful of devotees in the main chapel, which is usually packed with both Catholic and non-Christian devotees praying for cures for themselves or their loved ones.

The imposing Gothic basilica of Our Lady of Good Health was locked, while two smaller churches that mark the spots where, according to legend, local Hindu boys witnessed the apparition of Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus in the 16th century, stood deserted.

Only the entrance to the parish priest’s residence was packed with distraught men and women, mostly from fishing families, desperately seeking aid after the giant wave devastated their community of 5,000.

In Rome yesterday, Pope John Paul II addressed the challenge to faith posed by the disaster, saying that with the birth of Jesus, God “has come to share our existence.”

“Faith teaches us that the most difficult and painful trials —as in the recent calamity in Southeast Asia — God does not abandon us,” John Paul told pilgrims in St Peter’s Square before the noon Mass.

But in Britain, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, acknowledged that the tsunami disaster had made him question the existence of God.

In an article that appeared in the London Telegraph yesterday, he said “it would be wrong” if faith were not “upset” by the catastrophe that has already claimed more than 137,000 lives.

According to the Indian government, the tsunami killed about 550 people in Velankanni, many of them pilgrims. But a priest at the local parish said the true number is closer to 5,000.

Two days after the disaster, the town’s massive, makeshift church hall was converted into a gruesome, multireligious funeral parlor. Christian, Hindu and Muslim clerics performed the last rites as more than 1,000 bodies were given a mass burial.

“There were at least 3,000 people on the beach when the tsunami struck, and many were washed away,” said the priest, Father Sengole.

On New Year’s Day, the body of 21-year-old Sathya lay on a palm-frond bier on the beach where her house had stood. The fisherman’s daughter had died that morning in the hospital.

The pilgrim town’s celebrated chapel, sitting on a rise about 1,000 feet from the sea, was erected by Portuguese merchant sailors in the 16th century after they survived a shipwreck off the coast. Legend has it that Mary guided them to shore.

Over the centuries, the original structure has been extended several times, and a Gothic basilica was constructed next to the chapel in 1975.

Father Sengole predicted that pilgrims will soon return to the chapel, encouraged by the fact that the tsunami’s waters never entered the building.

“People are seeing it as a miracle,” he said.

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