Sri Lanka’s not-so-tranquil Buddhists

Pope Francis faces a big challenge when he heads to Sri Lanka this month – dealing with the bitter hostility of the island’s extremist Buddhist monks

This article was first published in The Catholic Herald on January 2 2015.

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Last year the satirical news site The Onion published a story about Buddhist extremism. Its headline read: “Extremist cell vows to unleash tranquillity on the West.” It described a video posted online in which a monk threatened “an assault of profound inner stillness” and said “no city will be spared from spiritual harmony … We will bring the entire United States to its knees in deep meditation.”

In Western culture the Buddhist monk is an unshakably serene and peaceful figure, unwilling to hurt a fly. Yet Christians and Muslims in Sri Lanka are likely to have a different picture. The sight of saffron robes may bring to mind not tranquillity but an angry crowd, a shaking fist or a brick thrown through the window.

Buddhist aggression against minorities in Sri Lanka rose sharply last year. In January three Pentecostal churches were attacked by mobs. At least one of these mobs was led by monks. Furniture and windows were smashed and a prayer centre set on fire. In June anti-Muslim riots in the south-west of the country brought violence on a much larger scale. Four people were killed, 80 injured and 10,000 displaced. Neighbourhoods were torched and homes ransacked.

Pope Francis, who is expected to arrive in the country on January 13, will be deeply aware of the dangers Sri Lanka’s minorities face. His first challenge is to avoid making them worse.

Tensions have long existed in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the rest of the population. These were pushed to the background during the decades-long civil conflict with the Tamil Tigers, a secular insurgency finally crushed in 2009.

Since then extremists have found their voice in a group called Bodu Bala Sena (“Buddhist Power Force”), or BBS. The group, founded in 2012, says it only seeks to defend Sri Lanka’s Buddhist identity and distances itself from any violence. Yet the rioting against Muslims followed rallies held by BBS nearby. The spark was an altercation between two Muslims and a Buddhist monk, but a fiery address by the BBS leader, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, escalated the tension dramatically. To an angry crowd he exclaimed: “If a Muslim or any other foreigner puts so much as a hand on a Sinhala person – let alone a monk – it will be the end of all of them!”

The group is not keen on Pope Francis either. After the Holy See confirmed his three-day visit, BBS issued a statement, saying: “Pope Francis must apologise to Buddhists for the atrocities committed by Christian colonial governments in South Asia.” Assuming the trip is not cancelled because of its proximity to Sri Lanka’s presidential elections, the Pope will have to tread carefully.

Buddhist extremism has become a danger not just in Sri Lanka but in Burma, too. Similar riots against Muslims have killed at least 200 people in the past two years. A Burmese movement called 969 has emerged that, like BBS, sees Muslims – and to a lesser extent Christians – as predatory aggressors out to destroy Buddhist culture.

Francis has little experience of Buddhism to draw on. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires he built close relationships with Jews, Muslims and Protestants. On his visit to the Middle East he was accompanied by two old friends, a rabbi and an imam, whose embrace at the Western Wall transmitted a powerful image to the world. But Buddhists are barely a presence in Argentina. His journey to South Asia – the first by a pope since St John Paul II went to India in 1999 – will mark a step into the unknown.

His chief antagonists are Gnanasara, the hot-headed leader of BBS, and Wirathu, leader of 969, who jokingly calls himself “the bald Bin Laden”. The pair, both monks, have close links. Last year they met twice, and Wirathu attended a BBS conference in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, addressing 5,000 supporters. They will be eyeing the Pope’s visit closely, particularly on the second day, when Francis meets Buddhist and other religious leaders. Any clumsy reference to the country’s recent war or its colonial history could lead to difficulties.

The monks’ causes have become popular because many in Sri Lanka and Burma feel that Buddhism is under siege. Despite both countries being majority Buddhist there is a sense that the religion is being edged out by more aggressive faiths.

To bolster this view the groups’ supporters argue that Buddhism has long been on the losing end of history. They recall the time 1,000 years ago, before the spread of Islam and the growth of Western empires, when nearly all of Asia was Buddhist. Now countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh are mainly Muslim and the Philippines is mainly Catholic. Burmese and Sri Lankan nationalists see Buddhist diminishment in terms of military advancement by Christians and Muslims. This aggression, they feel, continues today. As the official BBS website says: “The call for Buddhist nationalism is a last resort to … ensure history is not repeated.”

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‘The roughest time of year for some’

For a homeless person, Christmas is a trial – but charities and churches are helping

This article was first published in The Times on December 19 2014.

Chris Ubsdell (Photo: Mark Greaves)

Chris Ubsdell (Photo: Mark Greaves)

Last December Kerrie was sleeping in a stairwell in south London. She was freezing, with only a coat to keep her warm, until an elderly woman came and placed a quilt on top of her. “I didn’t mean to wake you up,” the woman said. She came back later with a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich. On Christmas Day she brought a proper meal, with slices of turkey and pigs in blankets and a box of Quality Street.

Christmas is the hardest time of year for a homeless person. If you are lucky, you find yourself a place in a hostel before winter sets in. Failing that, you may be able to find emergency shelter in a church. If you are still sleeping rough on December 23, you can sign up for a bed with Crisis at Christmas, run by the charity Crisis, which operates for eight days over the Christmas period.

Kerrie, who is in her early 30s, was not so fortunate. She says she tried to sign up to Crisis, but her dog, a Staffordshire terrier with a black eye called Nibbles, made it more difficult, as only one out of ten of the Crisis at Christmas centres is open to pets.

For those homeless people who do sign up, though, Crisis at Christmas is a happy break from the grind of street life. It provides food, hot showers, the chance of having a haircut or seeing a doctor or dentist, and even activities such as five-a-side football, art classes and table tennis.

Chris Ubsdell, who stayed with Crisis last year, describes it as like a Butlins holiday camp or a music festival. Having the basics covered means “you don’t have to worry about things for a week”. Simple things like shower gel, a razor and a towel are provided too, he says, adding that for a homeless person a hot shower alone “is like being in Heaven”.

Crisis at Christmas is entirely run by volunteers — this year there will be 9,000 of them working at ten sites across London, and services will be offered in Newcastle and Edinburgh too, but for a shorter period. Siobhan Sheridan has volunteered for the past seven years. She says she could not think of another way to spend Christmas: “It’s a combination of doing something that feels genuinely important and meeting wonderful people.”

The other options if you are homeless are night shelters, where you sleep in a dormitory or communal area, or hostels, which provide more permanent accommodation, usually for a year or two. The largest emergency shelter is run by West London Churches Homeless Concern, which provides 70 beds at different churches each day of the week throughout the winter. This year the shelter has been full, with extra people queueing for admission each night. Judith Roberts, who has volunteered with the charity for the past 13 years, says that the homeless guests are treated the same as “friends coming round for dinner”. She explains that she is driven by the idea that if she were made homeless she would want “to go somewhere people treated you with respect and dignity”.

For shelters and hostels the Christmas period, enshrined as it is as a hallowed time for family, is a huge challenge — and for many homeless people it is merely a reminder of the friends or family they have lost. Chris Deacon, manager of a Thames Reach hostel in Vauxhall, south London, says that the “rollercoaster of emotions” starts as early as November.

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‘The bodies lay on top of one another’

Mark Greaves talks to the Irish Sister who tended to the victims of the Bhopal disaster 30 years ago – at great cost to her own well-being

This article was first published in The Catholic Herald on November 21 2014.

The horror began just after midnight on December 3 1984. White vapour streamed into the air at a pesticides factory in the Indian city of Bhopal. The gas formed a dense fog that swept through neighbourhoods nearby. People woke up coughing, vomiting and struggling to breathe. They ran out of their homes trying to escape the air. In the panic children were ripped from their parents’ grasp and some were trampled underfoot. Many simply choked and collapsed. The lucky ones made it to the hospital two miles away.

According to Amnesty International, 7,000 people died that night. The figure doubled in the ensuing weeks and months. Union Carbide, the American company that owned the pesticides plant, had ignored grave warnings about its safety. The disaster had been predicted by a journalist, Raj Keswani, who had written several weeks earlier: “We are all about to be annihilated.”

The morning after the leak, the city woke up to the news of the tragedy, but no one knew how far the gas had spread or how to protect themselves against it. There was confusion about what the gas even was.

At Miriam’s School for the Handicapped, the Sisters of St Joseph of Chambery sealed the doors with mats and placed tubs of water in the children’s rooms. Keeping moisture in the air was believed to help against the gas. This was just hearsay, though – no official advice had been given on the procedures to follow.

The next day the Sisters received a call from the archbishop. He asked if they might be able to go and help at the hospital nearest the disaster. It was “not pleasant”, he warned them. But this did not deter the Sisters, with all four of them volunteering to help.

Sister Christopher Whelan, 81, who grew up in Dublin but has lived in Bhopal since 1952, was one of them. On the way to the hospital the roads “had bodies on them”, Sister Christopher says. “It was an awful sight, something that you don’t forget.” When they arrived at Hamidia hospital the corridors were packed with bodies. Some were “lying on top of one another”. The living and the dead lay next to each other. Sister Christopher recalls that “deaths were taking place constantly”.

The women’s task was to try to bring families together. The victims were in a stupor and blinded by fluid from their eyes. So the Sisters went up to each person, describing the clothes of the people they were lying next to, asking if they knew them. Once families had been grouped together, they were carried out of the hospital into tents provided by the military. The idea was that if they woke up they would be surrounded by family rather than strangers.

The Sisters also tried to clean up. Vomit and faeces had created a “terrible stench”. They cleaned the victims’ bodies, Sister Christopher explains, but had to leave them in soiled clothes because they had no fresh ones to give them.

Some of the children could not be grouped with a family. The Sisters offered to look after them. They were given a corridor in the basement of the hospital and covered the children with blankets – one on top, two underneath – to stave off the winter cold. Two Sisters looked after them during the day. The other two, including Sister Christopher, did the night shift.

One by one the children began to emerge from their stupor. The first girl who did so they bathed and put in new clothes. Afterwards, instead of returning to her own spot, she squeezed in next to a little boy. The Sisters asked if she knew him, and she replied that he was her brother. When they were able to open their eyes, other children went and sat next to their classmates.

Sister Christopher has fond memories of the children. “They created a relationship with us. They came and put their arms around us,” she says.

Meanwhile, parents arrived looking for the children they had lost. “It was heartbreaking,” Sister Christopher recalls. “Some of them would recognise a child and they were so happy. ‘This is my child, Sister!’ They had been looking for them everywhere.” Other parents left to continue their miserable search elsewhere.

After a few weeks, the care of the children was taken over by the state government. The Sisters of St Joseph would never see them again. Sister Christopher remembers that one of their charges had become known as the “miracle baby”. She had apparently survived after her mother collapsed on top of her, pushing her into a gutter free from the gas. Sister Christopher says the newspapers reported that she was now married and had a degree. “She was a beautiful little baby,” she says.

Only two months later did scientists work out why so many had died. The gas had included hydrogen cyanide, which stops the body being able to absorb oxygen. The slowness with which this detail emerged led to suspicions – aired in the New Scientist a year later – that this information had been suppressed by Union Carbide.

For the treatment of victims this information was critical. Doctors had previously focused on alleviating symptoms. But cyanide poisoning can be treated with an antidote directly.

The following year Sister Christopher began to feel the effects of the gas.

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Moribund churches get the HTB treatment

Holy Trinity Brompton, the creator of the Alpha course, is busy ‘planting’ churches all over the UK

This article was first published in the Times on 25 October 2014.

The Rev Tim Matthews at St Swithun's in Bournemouth (Tom Redman Photography)

The Rev Tim Matthews at St Swithun’s in Bournemouth (Tom Redman Photography)

St Swithin’s church in Lincoln is an enormous 19th-century structure built to seat 1,000 people. For the past few years it has survived on a congregation of ten. The Right Rev Christopher Lowson, the Bishop of Lincoln, admits that if the Church of England had been “a more commercially sensitive organisation”, it would have been sold long ago.

On recent Saturdays, however, the church has been abuzz with activity. Fifty or so volunteers have been busy gardening, painting, mopping and clearing out rubbish. Pest control was called in after dead rats and mice were found inside. A new sign has been put up along with a banner advertising the Alpha course.

Its new vicar is the Rev Jim Prestwood, a former youth worker from north London. He has arrived with a team of 12, mostly volunteers, who uprooted themselves from the south-east to help to bring St Swithin’s back to life. They came after an invitation from the Bishop of Lincoln to Holy Trinity Brompton (“HTB”), the evangelical Anglican church in west London that developed the Alpha course. The stalwart group of ten “kept the church alive”, the bishop says. “Now we have an opportunity for it to have a very exciting use.”

The change in style will be quite radical. Instead of incense and altar servers there will be electric guitars and drums and a video screen. Worship will be switched to the other side of the church, Prestwood explains, so they don’t “start banging into the nice Anglo-Catholic reredos”. Traditional communion services will continue on a Thursday in an attempt to provide “the best of the old and the best of the new”, he says.

HTB has a good track record in reviving churches. Until recently this was seen as purely a London phenomenon. That changed in 2009, when it took over St Peter’s church in Brighton. Since then it has been invited to “plant” churches in Norwich, Bournemouth and Hastings, in addition to Lincoln.

St Peter’s, known as “Brighton’s cathedral”, is the success story that St Swithin’s and others are seeking to replicate. In early 2009 St Peter’s was due to be closed. Half the building had been cordoned off because of a leaking roof and falling plasterwork, and it had a congregation of about 30. Now its Sunday services attract 900 people, mostly in their twenties, thirties and forties (and the roof is fixed too).

The Rev Archie Coates, the vicar of St Peter’s, says the key is to provide more than just services on a Sunday. When he and a team of 30 volunteers first arrived they established an Alpha course, to introduce people to Christianity, and a weekly meal for the homeless. “People don’t want to just come to church — they want to make a difference,” he says.

One significant — and immediate — benefit from HTB’s involvement at St Peter’s was the £50,000 in start-up cash that the west London church brought with it. Many of HTB’s plant churches start off with that amount, though not all. Once the money runs out, the churches are on their own, however. Mark Elsdon-Dew, the communications director for HTB, insists that they are “not HTB churches”. He explains: “Once they say goodbye they are independent — they can do what they like.”

At St Peter’s, Coates says, they had the extra help of good publicity; a petition to keep the church open attracted 6,500 signatures. When it did re-open there was “a huge amount of goodwill”.

The Rev Ian Dyble, vicar at St Thomas’s in Norwich, was not so lucky. After his appointment was announced one member of the congregation burst into tears, he says. Some people, he explains, associated HTB with “white sofas and smoke machines and smoothies” (he is citing an episode of the BBC soap opera Rev in which a church is taken over by trendy evangelicals) and feared that their parish traditions would be smothered. He has tried hard not to do that, he says, and offers two traditional services on a Sunday and a monthly evensong as well as a more contemporary service with guitars. He says it is “important to honour the very faithful people who have served their heart out in this parish for generations”. In just a year and a half a congregation of 30 has grown to 300.

One HTB plant without the constraints of an existing congregation is St Swithun’s in Bournemouth. The church was closed for a year before the Rev Tim Matthews arrived last month. The task for him and his team of 20 volunteers is to reach out to people who do not go to church at all. Matthews was a chartered accountant in the City before changing career, working for several years as a leader at HTB before heading the planting team from the congregation to St Swithun’s.

He says of his new home: “We try to make it look and feel as little like a traditional church as possible.” After the first service everyone went down to the beach for a picnic. He says that people have been surprised: “They often say, ‘this doesn’t feel like church, this is actually somewhere I want to be . . . People bring their friends because they know they are not going to be embarrassed.”

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Welsh martyr who brought the Scriptures to the shores of Korea

This article was first published in the Times on 16 August 2014.


Today Pope Francis will celebrate a Mass in Seoul in memory of Korea’s early Catholic martyrs. He will declare 124 of them to be “Blessed”, the step below sainthood. Many of them were beheaded near by, outside the city’s west gate, during a persecution that lasted from 1791 to 1888. Authorities regarded them as deviants “infected by error”, capable of leading Confucian society to ruin. In all more than 10,000 Korean Catholics were killed.

It might be assumed that Britain played little part in this first chapter of Korean Christianity. But among those celebrated as martyrs today is a Non-conformist Welsh minister, Robert Jermain Thomas. Every year hundreds of Koreans travel to Monmouthshire to visit Hanover Chapel in Llanover, near Abergavenny, where Thomas’s father was minister.

Thomas’s story, documented most recently in Stella Price’s book Chosen for Choson (Korea), is not without controversy. His time as a missionary in Asia was brief and was plagued with misfortune. He and his wife, Caroline, arrived in Shanghai as newlyweds in December 1863. Four months later Caroline died after a miscarriage. Thomas, grief-stricken, moved farther north to Chefoo (now Yantai), where he offered to help two Korean Catholics to smuggle Bibles back to their homeland. He spent two and a half months on the Korean coast, handing out Bibles and trying to learn the language. In a letter to a colleague he admitted that the Koreans were “very hostile to foreigners”, but said that after a chat some of them accepted books on Christianity. “As these books are taken at the risk of decapitation, or at least fines and imprisonment,” he wrote, “it is quite fair to conclude that the possessors wish to read them.”

Once he returned to China the Korean kingdom began to crack down brutally on Catholics. Many thousands were killed. Astonishingly, Thomas went back, agreeing to act as interpreter for an armed English merchant ship, the General Sherman, which sought to open up Korea to trade. It was a misguided mission. The ship, after reaching Korea’s coast, travelled up the river to Pyongyang despite repeated warnings from officials that this was forbidden. At each stop Thomas handed out Bibles and cakes. But relations with Koreans soon soured — the crew took a police chief hostage and demanded rice, gold and silver in exchange for setting him free. A two-day battle ensued in which all those onboard were killed.

It is hard, in this light, to see how Thomas could be cherished by Koreans, but by the 1930s his life was being celebrated. A memorial was put up on Ssuk Island where he was killed, and a church built by the river in his name.

In the decades after his death Korea changed radically. Under pressure from Japan it agreed to foreign trade and in the 1880s signed treaties with Britain and the US. Protestant missionaries poured in, building schools and hospitals. By 1910 144,000 Koreans had become Protestant Christians. Among those early missionaries was an American, the Rev Samuel Moffett. He claimed that eyewitnesses of the General Sherman battle saw “a white man in the smoke on the burning deck shouting ‘Jesus’ and throwing books to the people lining the shore”. Koreans who had accepted books from Thomas or even just picked them up from the shore later converted to Christianity, Moffett claimed. A government official, meanwhile, used one of the Bibles to wallpaper his house, which by the 1900s had become a place of pilgrimage.

Today nearly a third of South Koreans are Christian, of which nine million are Protestant and about five million Catholic. More missionaries from South Korea are sent abroad than in any other country apart from the US. One such missionary is the Rev Daniel Yoo, minister at Hanover Chapel. He says that between 1,500 and 2,000 Koreans visit the Thomas family’s chapel every year.

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