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  TRAVEL  
     
 
   
 
  Under rogue regime
  By Tim Stafford  
  I FLEW into Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, on June 3, just days after the rogue nation-state had set off a nuclear explosion, conducted missile tests, and declared its truce with South Korea null and void. During my travels, two American journalists were put on trial for infringing on North Korean territory; their conviction and sentence to 12 years imprisonment were announced just after I left.

As a journalist, I never believed the extremely insular Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) would let me in. For years, Dean Hirsch, president of World Vision International, wanted me to witness his organization's work there. I scoffed. "Do you know how long it takes on the Internet to find out what I do for a living?"

Despite international tensions, North Korea is cautiously open toward a handful of Christian humanitarian groups, including World Vision. A five-person delegation from the relief agency received visas at the North Korean embassy in Beijing and flew to Pyongyang the same day.

Inside the airport, we were required to surrender our cell phones until our departure. Two government minders escorted us to the capital. At our 40-story hotel in central Pyongyang, we saw only a handful of guests. Our first evening, we stood at the hotel door and asked to cross the street for a closer look at a fast food restaurant. Our request was denied.

When we went for a morning walk, minders told us which streets we could walk on and for how long. Photographs and conversations with pedestrians were off limits. We were allowed to visit World Vision projects to ask questions and take photographs.

At 5 a.m. each morning, loudspeakers throughout Pyongyang began broadcasting music. Two hours later an alarm would sound, and the loudspeakers would switch to a hectoring female voice urging workers to greater effort in the coming workday (so our minders explained), interspersed with short bursts of martial music. This would go on for an hour.

We saw squads of flag wavers greeting workers as they entered their offices, and school bands playing on street corners to cheer their parents on to more diligent work.

The nation's capital city has broad streets but almost no cars. Drab, grey concrete apartment and office blocks dominate the skyline. Most people travel on foot. Men and women dress in conservative Western apparel. There is no litter or graffiti anywhere. Pyongyang's boulevards seem eerily empty.

Propagandistic art is everywhere, on billboards, posters, and murals. Massive statues, towers, and plazas commemorate North Korean identity and achievement, including huge, idealized portraits of Great Leader Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994, his son and present head of state, General Kim Jong Il, and heroic marching workers and soldiers. In Pyongyang, Stalinism has never gone out of style.

In the mid-1990s, catastrophic floods triggered massive crop failure, malnutrition, and starvation; by some estimates, up to 3 million people died. In 1995, World Vision initiated famine relief for North Koreans. Hirsch remembers seeing obvious malnutrition during those early visits. One night, he sat in a hotel restaurant looking out over a completely dark Pyongyang. There was simply no power to light the city.

Negotiations to bring food aid into North Korea were fraught with difficulties. Other American and European agencies include Mercy Corps, Christian Friends of Korea, Global Resources Services, the Eugene Bell Foundation, Samaritan's Purse, and Fida International. Most have been active for a decade or more. Other major aid comes from the United Nations World Food Program, the United States, China, and Japan. North Korea remains unable to produce enough food to feed its 23 million people. But, according to Human Rights Watch, more families are bartering for food in small, private markets that the government tolerates.

In recent years, the North Korean government has become slightly more open to trade, tourism, and outside influence. But its military remains a global threat due to its exportable nuclear capabilities, missile technology, and conventional forces.

The People's Army comprises an estimated 1 million soldiers, with 700,000 positioned near the border with South Korea. Western analysts, including the CIA, believe North Korea's "large-scale military spending draws off resources needed for investment and civilian consumption," according to the CIA's 2008 World Factbook.

Further, North Korea rejects normal accountability measures, so Western aid agencies worry that assistance intended for the poor might be diverted to the military. The government requires American agencies' visits to be planned far in advance, which makes it difficult for them to verify who actually benefits from American aid programs.

Mercy Corps' communications director, Joy Portella, told Christianity Today that as recently as May, her agency was able to visit its projects, which involve fisheries, agriculture, and medical care: "We were encouraged by the progress we found. We look forward to expanding our work in the future." Likewise, Fida International's program director, Olli Pitkanen, reported in an e-mail interview, "Since 2002, I have seen that once we have agreed on the plans with the various parties, the implementation is followed up together, and the aid reaches the needy. This would not be possible without having our staff present in the country."

World Vision's first famine initiative launched seven wet-noodle factories, providing lunches for nurseries and kindergartens. A staple in Asian diets, wet noodles cannot be stockpiled and thus potentially diverted to soldiers.

In 2008, under a U.S. grant, World Vision joined Mercy Corps and other agencies in providing large direct food shipments. But North Korea ended the program in February 2009, even though the agencies had delivered 169,000 metric tons of food to 900,000 people. Today, World Vision International supports small-scale village projects that provide food, clean water, and medical care. And World Vision -- South Korea supports two large, technologically complex projects in Pyongyang, one that grows vegetables hydroponically, another that grows seed potatoes.

On our first full day in North Korea, we drove into the countryside to visit Dochi-ri, a village where World Vision has launched a pilot program. The late-spring countryside was beautiful, with fields and rice paddies folded between low green hills. Scores of workers were planting rice and cultivating corn with short-handled hoes. Many fields sported red flags flanking a large poster with slogans aimed at increasing farm production.

As we climbed a narrow road into the hillier country around Dochi-ri, we could see that every inch of ground had been planted. The soil appeared poor and the yields meager, but there was no fallow ground and the fields had no margins. Every effort was being made to grow more food.

World Vision's in-country director, Victor W. C. Hsu, says his agency insists on working in poor villages far from the capital because the most vulnerable children are there and not in Pyongyang, where the Communist elite live.

Our first visit was to an organic fertilizer plant built by World Vision for $278,000. Along with our minders, the local manager and an official from the ministry of agriculture accompanied us. The plant takes chicken manure and corn stalks and turns them into fertilizer. Hsu said that World Vision had not particularly wanted to support a fertilizer plant, preferring a more direct link to local children's health. But officials had made it a first priority. Whenever possible, World Vision cooperates.

We then paid a call to a nearby bakery and soymilk production facility, meant to produce lunches for local schools. World Vision provided the machinery, while the government provided the building and labor. We watched schoolchildren consume the factory's bread and soymilk. These students also had clean water from a new well run by solar pumps, a new school roof, solar panels for power, and new chairs, desks, and blackboards—all part of the aid program.

Most impressive was a gravity-fed water system, which transports spring water from the hills above the village to each home. World Vision water engineer Daniel Folta described the painstaking design process involving careful measurements in the field. (No GPS field measurements were allowed.) Some 600 villagers came out to dig by hand three miles of trenches three feet deep. The system has no pumps or vents and needs almost no maintenance, and Folta believes it will provide clean drinking water for decades.

Over the years, relations with North Korean leaders have had countless ups and downs. Several times World Vision all but pulled out. I asked Hsu the obvious question:

Why do you do it? Aren't you merely propping up a dictatorial regime?

"I would say that in some ways that is true," Hsu said. "But how can we help children unless we work with this regime?

"We have had reasonable access to the most vulnerable here since 1995. Malnourishment really has slowed. After a dozen years of frustration, headaches, and confrontation, humanitarian principles are better understood in the dprk. That is no small achievement. We have set precedent and benchmarks for the future."

Heidi Linton, executive director of Christian Friends of Korea, speaks of "enormous suspicion leveled against us in the early days. We are in a very different place today. We have people eager to work with us, because of the reality on the ground."

When I asked Hirsch why World Vision persists in North Korea, he said, "I put it under the idea of bearing witness, even in the most hostile environment. You need to leave some God-room. You saw our water engineers. They read the Bible every day in the car. They pray at the worksite."

In sometimes-testy meetings with high-ranking government officials, Hirsch explains World Vision's identity in straightforward terms: "We are Christian, and God loves all the children of the world, including the children of the DPRK. That's why we are here -- to help the children."

Under such high-security conditions, however, it is impossible to get a sense of a living church. Pyongyang is home to only four churches -- two Protestant, one Catholic, and one Orthodox. Western staff members attend worship as often as possible, as do other expatriates, but it is not possible to have private conversations with any of the North Koreans present. No church buildings seem to exist outside the capital.

World Vision's Folta, who learned Korean while growing up in a missionary family, once worked alongside a North Korean man so consistently warm and kind that Folta finally asked him if he followed Jesus.

"No, why do you ask?" the man replied.

But, "even if he were a believer, he wouldn't have told me," Folta told me. North Korea shows no interest in allowing religious freedom. Many groups that do humanitarian work here are Christian. While this work is arduous, it is less so than it was a decade ago. Despite tense international relations, Christian witness endures. (Courtesy: Christianity Today)
--------
Tim Stafford is a senior writer for Christianity Today.

 
   
   
 
  Life in Swine flu capital
  By Archana Sudheer Gayen  
  "LATEST news kya hai," the chemist at our local medical store asked us, referring to the swine flu pandemic that has gripped Pune. I certainly didn't expect that question from someone who obviously was supposed to know all about the flu.

Fear was evident in his eyes, spreading over the mask that covered his face. That was last fortnight; just days after the flu claimed its first victim in the city. I informed him that a chemist and a doctor were critical and on ventilator. I regretted my words immediately. The poor man was frightened, and here I was telling him indirectly that his job could cost him his life. I quickly added that they were stable, trying miserably to rectify my wrong. (Both these persons succumbed to the virus later).

This was one of the first signs of panic I witnessed across the city. It was the beginning of the storm. After 14-year-old schoolgirl Reeda Shaikh died due to the flu, it was utmost pandemonium.

If a chemist could be so scared, what about the common man? The feeling was of utter helplessness. The fact that there was not too much awareness regarding the flu made the situation chaotic. It was not a 'survival of the fittest' race. Even healthy persons were getting sick.

People were calling up one another, asking if all was fine. I got quite a few anxious calls myself. The traffic on the street also seemed to be a carrier of the virus. Talking to strangers was a total no-no. There was a sense of dread in the air.

My husband and I got ourselves a couple of masks, hand sanitisers and tissues. I don't think I have ever washed my hands as many times in my life, as I did then. I still scrub my hands at regular intervals, but the first week of the flu scare almost saw my palms parched because of the constant washing.

Now, the bedlam has subsided a bit. And, I do find things funny as well. The types of masks I saw make me smile, in spite of all the fear. There was a certain humour around it. Everyone was a little embarrassed to wear them at first. You could see the sly smile in their eyes. Some looked like penguins with long beaks, while others were no less than mummies.

Also interesting is the fact that several people take off their masks at night. It's as though the virus has taken a break from hard work in the day to rest at night.

"Maybe, it's chemical warfare, baby," my husband tells me at breakfast, adding, "it could be an experiment gone wrong." I brush it aside. However, this got me thinking of what this deadly flu had done to us.

Life was so much in routine earlier, with nothing going out of place, and here we are, wondering what went wrong. Suddenly, the 'happening Pune' is the place every person is avoiding travelling to. Students are going back to their native places. It had become notorious as the epicentre of the epidemic.

I would have loved to see Pune covered in the news, but surely not like this. Although the fear has lessened now, possibly due to more awareness, there is still a sense of insecurity. We refrain from eating ice cream now, not because of fear of catching swine flu, but wary of standing in long lines to get ourselves tested, in case we contract a sore throat. The first thing I do in the morning, after my prayer, is check the daily news for updates. Now, it's an underlying apprehension, unlike the fear that gripped us initially. My maid also got a week off, as she is running a cold and cough. Although she insists it is nothing to worry about, I can't take a chance.

A friend of mine at church got the 'regular' flu, but that was enough to freak her out. "I don't want to die so young," she wailed to herself, fearing the worst. She popped pills and ate her way to health, trying to curb her lack of appetite and tasteless mouth. My husband recently felt a little breathless and called me up from work. We both smiled later on, learning that it was the result of something stale he had eaten at work.

Till last week, everything was functioning as usual. Now, schools, malls, multiplexes are shut. People are requested to stay indoors, and venture outside with utmost caution. However, this doesn't stop businesses from rolling on.

I received an SMS from an apparel store in the city. The message read, "CUPID CLEARANCE SALE ends 13th August 9 pm. Offering you irresistible bargains. (ALL STAFF WILL BE WEARING MASKS)".

Medical stores are going in for the kill. An N95 mask that supposedly costs Rs 100-120 is being sold at a nearby chemist for Rs 285! As there is no price printed on the commodity, and as they are few in number, customers are forced to pay whatever is asked for.

I don't know how long this pandemic will last, but I hope it gets over soon, or a vaccine is released. I live one day at a time, hoping for the best. I want my life and city back. I want to be able to roam around without a mask or go for a long drive in the evenings.

I want to be able to make friends while on walks and go for movies. It doesn't look like I can do all this, at least for a few more days. I want to be able to enjoy life without fear, especially of the unknown. I long to do everything I want to, without the feeling of a virus hovering around me. But then, life is precious and prevention is better than cure.

So, I am happy to be wearing the mask and staying indoors. It's time to flaunt the mascara in my eyes, bat my eyelashes, and smile with my eyes. It's time to say a silent prayer and wait for the tide to recede.
 
   
   
 
  My Lord, My God!
  By Elizebath Philip  
  I HAD no intention to do any sight-seeing or shopping in Chennai as I wanted to rest after a hectic day. But I wanted to visit St. Thomas Basilica, which I had once visited during my college days.

Though I have visited Chennai a couple of times later, I could not make another visit to the Basilica. Another time, when I come with my husband, I would take a day off and visit the pilgrim centre, I thought.

After all, it has been part of our practice to visit a church, preferably the oldest, and the most important temple, mosque or gurdwara at the place of our visit. Perhaps, we have visited more temples, gurdwaras and mosques than our Hindu, Sikh or Muslim friends.

The traffic in Chennai was at its worst. The driver had taken a different route and lo! I was passing through Mylapore and the Santhome. I immediately got the vehicle stopped and got down. From a distance, I could hear the sermon in Tamil as the evening worship was on.

The Santhome looked beautiful in the night with lights and a wonderful fountain at the entrance. This Basilica is built on the tomb of St. Thomas. The inscription on the wall mentions that this is one of the three Basilicas in the world built on the tomb of an apostle of Jesus, the other two being the St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, over the tomb of St. Peter and the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, built over the tomb of St. James.

In view of this, the Santhome, Chennai is a pilgrim centre for people all over the world.

As is well known, St. Thomas was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus and he is the one who brought the good news of gospel to India. Yes, he is the same Thomas, whom we also call the 'Doubting Thomas' as he insisted on testing the genuineness of Jesus, when He appeared to him after resurrection. He put his finger in his wound to confirm that he was indeed Jesus, who was crucified and buried three days earlier. Yes, he is the same Thomas who proclaimed Jesus as "My Lord and My God", perhaps the most powerful salutation in the Bible.

St. Thomas came to Kodungalloor in Kerala in 52 AD. He is believed to have visited several parts of Kerala and established seven churches at Kodungalloor, Kokamangalam, Kollam, Palayoor, Parur, Niranam and Nilackal.

It is believed that Virgin Mary appeared to St. Thomas at the Malayattoor Mount. Thousands throng this place on the first Sunday after Easter.

From Kerala, St. Thomas went to the Coromandel Coast. In the Chennai area he stayed in a cave on the St. Thomas Mount and established the first church in Mylapore. He was martyred in AD 72 at the St. Thomas Mount area and was buried at Mylapore, the spot on which the Santhome Basilica stands now.

At the Basilica, there is a St. Thomas Museum, which exhibits antiques and artifacts excavated from the San Thome area. It also has the lance-head that killed St. Thomas and a rare piece of his precious bone.

On the right side, is the Malai Matha (Our Lady of Mylapore). It is believed that St. Francis brought the statue to this place. I saw people seeking the intercession of the Matha. The Malaya Matha feast is celebrated in December.

There is a St. Thomas pole behind the church, on the way to the beach from the Basilica. It is believed that St. Thomas erected this pole as a mark to prevent the sea from encroaching the land, thus protecting the people who stay there. Even now people vouch that because of this pole, Tsunami did not affect the area behind the church.

There is a painting depicting St.Thomas receiving the Girdle of Virgin Mary which she dropped during her ascension. St. Thomas always wore it around his waist.

I reached the underground Tomb Chapel through the corridors. It is believed that the sand of the tomb has miraculous healing powers. The historical account has it that the tomb was opened first to take some earth to cure the son of King Mahadevan. The second time it was opened was sometime between AD 222 and 235 when most of the remains of St. Thomas were shifted to Edessa in Asia Minor by a merchant called Khabin and then to Ortona, Italy. The third time it was opened was by the Portuguese in1523.

The Basilica was earlier built in 1896 and extensively restored and renovated in 2002-2004. It looks magnificent. I planned to return after offering my prayers, but learnt that it was quite close to the Marina Beach. After a few refreshing minutes on the Beach, I decided to go to the St. Thomas Mount, the next day.

The Mount is near Guindy, on the airport road. It was also on the way to my place of stay. Though I could have avoided climbing the hill by taking the road route, I preferred to climb. I realized that through the climb, I was experiencing the 14 stations of Christ's crucifixion -- his climb of the Golgotha, the Calvary Hill, with the cross. There are 160 steps on the way to the Mount. At the top is an airy, cool expanse, about 300 ft above the sea level. From there, one can have an aerial-like view of the city that looked stunningly beautiful with the lights twinkling everywhere.

The hill was known as Peria Malai or Parangi Malai. It is believed that St. Thomas used to live on this mount in a cave and he was martyred here with a spear while praying before a stone cross. This is the same bleeding cross kept in the church altar. It is believed that St. Thomas was clutching at it when he died. Therefore, the cross bleeds even when the stains are removed.

A postal stamp of the bleeding cross was released in 1972 on the occasion of the 19th century of the martyrdom of St. Thomas. July 3rd is the St. Thomas Day, the day of his martyrdom. I could attend the worship on a St. Thomas Day at Nilackal about two decades ago.

The altar of the church is on the same spot of the martyrdom and the church, dedicated to "Our Lady of Expectation," was built in 1523 by the Portugese. There is also a painting of Holy Mary and it is believed that this was painted by the evangelist St. Luke and brought to India by St. Thomas.

It was getting dark and I was alone. So I had to skip the cave, where St. Thomas used to live. I feel the visit was a blessing in disguise. After all, pilgrimages help us to reinvigorate our spiritual life.
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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