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ASIA: Religious Advocates Heed the Call of New Media

BANGKOK, Mar 10 2010 (IPS) - Not even religious advocates and leaders and can say no to the power of online media, whose call they are heeding in order to spread various messages of spirituality.

In late January, Catholics heard an edict from Pope Benedict XVI urging the flock to use the new media to spread the Good Word. On Feb. 22, the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, officially opened a Twitter account that now has more than 157,000 followers.

But apart from these high-profile figures, leaders of various other religious and spiritual communities in Asia are no strangers to the new media. In recent years, they have become very visible in blogs and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

This new technology has not so much seen the flock following the shepherd, as it has the other way around.

“We’ve always been in traditional media — print, radio, and TV. But we saw people migrating to the Internet,” Roman Catholic lay evangelist and author Bo Sanchez told the AMF. He added that this virtual community started five years ago in the Philippines, 81 percent of whose 92.2 million people are Catholics.

Apart from having a mobile phone ministry that sends a weekly text message to subscribers, his group also sends emails with daily Bible reflection guides to members and copies of his talks as mp3 audio files.


But Islamic teacher and writer Sadaf Farooqi, based in Pakistan, had no idea that there was “such a large Muslim, English-language online readership” as early as 2005.

“I share my articles and establish contacts with notable Muslim scholars, writers and teachers worldwide, who are involved in Islamic educational and welfare work,” said the mother of two, who has taught Islamic education courses for women in the last seven years.

Farooqi uses Hotmail, Windows Live Spaces, Facebook, LinkedIn, Blogger, WordPress and Twitter.

Cittasamvaro Bhikku, the Bangkok-based English monk who founded the ‘Little Bangkok Sangha’ website, was looking for an online venue for his series of ‘dhamma’ (virtuous path) talks nearly four years ago when he stumbled upon an audience waiting for such a site.

He set up The Little Bang (http://littlebang.org/) website, an online centre for updates in the Buddhist community. Majority of Thais are Buddhists.

“The Little Bang web page is not meant to be a personal blog. I never use the word ‘I’ there. The goal is not online interaction but just to have a regular English-language resource for people in the community,” said the monk, popularly known as Pandit Bhikku. He was ordained in the Thai Theravada tradition more than a decade ago.

“We don’t really interact in the blog; we interact face-to-face,” he said, adding that there are 2,000 to 3,000 people on his mailing list, with a core group of 200 people and a wider group of 600 who check the site from time to time.

“I think it’s a great idea for Buddhist monks to catch up with the trend and create blogs or online sites. It is effective in making more people aware and in reaching a wider community,” said Kamonwan Khamching, a Thai kinesiologist who checks the schedule of activities in Little Bang.

Both Sanchez and Farooqi stress that online venues work particularly well in reaching younger people, who grew up with new technology.

“They are the ones who use the medium most comfortably,” said Sanchez, a recipient of the prestigious The Outstanding Young Men award in 2006.

Sanchez is visible online in such sites as The Kerygma Family, Preacher in Blue Jeans, and BoSanchez.ph. He also has a Facebook and Twitter account.

Farooqi adds that Muslims in the west are particularly keen on using online resources. “This is especially true among many second-generation immigrants who can only read English. Thus, they turn first to the online world for seeking knowledge about Islam,” she said.

Other religious leaders and scholars in the Muslim community have made their online presence felt through many other sites, including those like Muslim Matters and Ask Imam.

“I don’t think it is taboo for an Islamic religious leader to join online sites like Facebook and Twitter. These are just means to an end,” said Pakistani journalist Farah Zahidi Moazzam, who is also an Islamic preacher, teacher and counselor.

As long as one maintains “modesty and decency” and does not resort to lies, then it is perfectly fine to use the new media, she explained.

Islamic hardliners, she noted, might feel they should not be using the online media due perhaps to “a lack of education or awareness” or the feeling that “more bad comes these tools than good, such as pornography, for instance”.

But the ease of sharing and accessing information is among the things spiritual leaders and followers, much like advocates of other causes, like about the Internet.

“We love the fact that we can reach more than a hundred thousand people who have opted in our mailing list — without much cost,” said Sanchez.

“I like almost everything about the new media, as they make knowledge sharing and networking so easy,” agreed Farooqi.

People are more open to reading Islamic material online than having face-to-face discussion, she sys. “One (reason) is shyness and the fear of revealing their lack of knowledge, and another is privacy, which is aptly met in cyberspace,” said Farooqi.

Kamonwan says it is the same among Thais. “I think Thais are more comfortable expressing themselves or asking questions about spiritual issues online than via face-to-face discussions,” she said.

But like other Internet users, leaders of religious communities find that it can eat up a bit too much of one’s time.

Ideally, Pandit Bhikku says, he would like to spend just a “couple of hours” per week online. He ends up spending more time than that because he personally writes the information on the Little Bang website. As for his Facebook account? “Somebody else does my Facebook for me,” he said.

“We don’t like that it’s getting noisier every second — with people receiving more and more emails every day. Websites are multiplying. So much is happening that we need to stand out above the noise,” said Sanchez, who gives a short update once or twice a week to 20-plus social networks, via ping.fm, a service that updates one’s social networks in one click.

The trick, Sanchez says, is in moderation and balance. “The online concerns are the same offline. It’s a need for spiritual connection, practical help on relationships, family, finances, and physical healing,” he said.

Farooqi adds that while physical presence at the mosque can never be replaced by the online world, that experience “would still be a very positive one spiritually”.

 
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