Saturday, 27 July 2013

Thai Buddhist monk faces sex and fraud charges

A luxurious lifestyle financed by his followers; claims of miraculous powers; allegations of sexual immorality--no, it's not an American charismaniac televangelist in the 1980s, but a Buddhist monk in Thailand in 2013, which shows that such characters can be found anywhere. As reported by Jocelyn Gecker of Associated Press, July 18, 2013:

BANGKOK - He's known as Thailand's jet-setting fugitive monk, and his story has riveted the country with daily headlines of lavish excess, promiscuity and alleged crimes ranging from statutory rape to manslaughter.

Until a month ago, 33-year old Wirapol Sukphol was relatively unknown in Thailand. Now he is at the centre of the biggest religious scandal the predominantly Buddhist country has seen in years.

Despite the vows he took to lead a life of celibacy and simplicity, Wirapol had a taste for luxury, police say. His excesses first came to light in June with a YouTube video that went viral. It showed the orange-robed monk in aviator sunglasses taking a private jet ride with a Louis Vuitton carry-on.

The video sparked criticism of his un-monkly behaviour and a stream of humorous headlines like, "Now boarding, Air Nirvana."

Since then, a long list of darker secrets has emerged — including his accumulated assets of an estimated 1 billion baht ($32 million). This week, authorities issued an arrest warrant for the disgraced monk after having him defrocked in absentia.

Wirapol was in France when the scandal surfaced after leading a meditation retreat at a monastery near Provence. He is believed to have then fled to the United States but his current whereabouts are unknown.

The arrest warrant implicates him on three charges including statutory rape, embezzlement and online fraud to seek donations. He is also under investigation for money laundering, drug trafficking and manslaughter for a hit-and-run accident. Authorities are struggling to figure out how he amassed so much money.

"Over the years there have been several cases of men who abused the robe, but never has a monk been implicated in so many crimes," said Pong-in Intarakhao, the case's chief investigator for the Department of Special Investigation, Thailand's equivalent of the FBI. "We have never seen a case this widespread, where a monk has caused so much damage to so many people and to Thai society."

Cases of monk misconduct in recent years have centred on alcohol use or cavorting with women or men, all forbidden activities. Last year, about 300 of Thailand's 61,416 full-time monks were reprimanded and in several cases disrobed for violating their vows, according to the Office of National Buddhism.

In Wirapol's case, investigators believe they have only scratched the surface.

Born in the poor northeastern province of Ubon Ratchathani, he entered the monkhood as a teenager and gained local renown for claims of supernatural powers like the ability to fly, walk on water and talk to deities. He renamed himself, Luang Pu Nen Kham, taking on a self-bestowed title normally reserved for elder monks.

Gradually, he cultivated wealthy followers to help fund expensive projects in the name of Buddhism — building temples, hospitals and what was touted as the world's largest Emerald Buddha. The 11-meter (36-foot) high Buddha was built at his temple in the northeast, touted as solid jade but made of tinted concrete.

Thailand's Anti-Money Laundering Office has discovered 41 bank accounts linked to the ex-monk. Several of the accounts kept about 200 million baht ($6.4 million) in constant circulation, raising suspicion of money laundering.

Investigators also suspect that Wirapol killed a man in a hit-and-run accident while driving a Volvo late at night three years ago.

Critics say Wirapol is an extreme example of a wider crisis in Buddhism, which has become marginalized by a shortage of monks and an increasingly secular society. The meditative lifestyle of the monkhood offers little allure to young Buddhists raised on shopping malls, smartphones and the Internet.

But the case of Wirapol has also shown the benefits of social media, says Songkran Artchariyasarp, a lawyer and Buddhist activist.

"Buddhists all around the world can learn from this case," said Songkran, who heads a Facebook group that collects tips about wayward monks. Photos uploaded to his page helped launch the investigation into Wirapol.

"Let this be a case study that shows if a monk does something wrong, it's harder to get away with it — especially in the era of social media."

But it remains stunning how much Wirapol did get away with. During a shopping spree from 2009 to 2011, Wirapol bought 22 Mercedes worth 95 million baht ($3.1 million), according to the DSI. The fleet of luxury cars were among 70 vehicles he has purchased. Some he gave as gifts to senior monks, others he sold off as part of a suspected black market car business to launder his money, Pong-in said.

Luxury travel for the monk included helicopters and private jets for trips between the northeast and Bangkok.

"I always wondered what kind of monk has this much money," said one of his regular pilots, Piya Tregalnon. Each domestic roundtrip cost about 300,000 baht ($10,000) and the monk always paid in cash, he said in comments posted on Facebook.

"The most bizarre thing is what was in his bag," Piya said, referring to the typical monk's humble cloth shoulder sack. "It was filled with stacks of 100 dollar bills."

Like many people, Piya only went public with his suspicions after the scandal erupted. Dozens of pictures have been posted in online forums showing Wirapol's high-flying lifestyle — riding a camel at the pyramids in Egypt, sitting in a cockpit at the Cessna Aircraft factory in Kansas. According to the pilot and investigators, Wirapol was interested in buying his own private jet.

Even more incriminating were accusations of multiple sexual relationships with women — a cardinal sin for monks who are not allowed to touch women. Among them was a 14-year-old girl with whom he allegedly had a son, a decade ago. The mother filed a statutory rape case against him last week.

Police have yet to determine how many people he swindled, but the trail of disappointed followers is long.

One of them is a Bangkok housecleaner originally from Ubon Ratchathani who remembers first hearing him preach a year ago.

"His voice was beautiful, it was mesmerizing. He captivated all of us with his words," recalled Onsa Yubram, 42. When he ended his sermon and held out his saffron bag, hundreds of people rushed forward with donations. "His bag was so full of cash, they had to transfer the money into a big fertilizer sack. He told us, 'Don't worry, no need to rush. I'll stay here until the last of you gets to donate.'"

Onsa now feels betrayed but says her belief in Buddhism is too strong to let this scandal shatter her faith.

"As a Buddhist I can understand why this happened. Monks, in a way, are ordinary men who have greed and desire," she said. "Some are bad apples, but that doesn't mean every monk is bad."

Monday, 22 July 2013

Physicists are still trying to understand what God has already revealed

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
Colossians 1:15-17 (NIV)

The passage of scripture above explains what scientists are still trying to figure out, as reported by Vivian Luk of The Canadian Press, July 19, 2013 (bold added by blogger):

VANCOUVER – Science is one step closer to solving one of the most profound mysteries in the cosmos due to what an international team of physicists say is an unprecedented observation about a fundamental particle in the universe.

Representatives from a team of 400 scientists from 11 countries, including Canada, revealed Friday that, for the first time, a muon neutrino was seen transformed into an electron neutrino — something never witnessed before.

The observation, announced at the European Physical Society Conference on High Energy Physics in Stockholm, allows for the possibility that neutrinos’ counterpart, anti-neutrinos, may not behave in the same way.

If that’s the case, it may help explain why the universe is made up of mostly matter and not antimatter — a phenomenon that scientists have been trying to unravel for years, said University of British Columbia physicist Hirohisa Tanaka.

Tanaka, who led a group responsible for analyzing data in the neutrino experiment known as T2K, said neutrinos come in three types and are intrinsically linked to matter. Their counterparts, anti-neutrinos, also come in the same three types, and are similarly linked to anti-matter.

When the universe was created, the Big Bang converted energy into matter and antimatter — two materials that destroy each other when they come into contact.

“In some sense, we’re asking why anything exists at all, if it wasn’t annihilated by equal quantities of matter and antimatter,” Tanaka said in an interview.

“There’s some kind of imbalance that occurred when the matter became dominant, and that is something that we can’t explain.”

Antimatter has been the fodder for many science fiction enthusiasts, used to power starships in Star Trek, and threatened to annihilate the Vatican in the popular 2000 novel Angels and Demons.

In the T2K experiment, scientists created muon neutrinos with a particle accelerator at a facility on the east coast of Japan and shot a beam of them through the ground. Three hundred kilometres at the other side of the country, the neutrinos were observed in a massive detector called the Super-Kamiokande.

The project began in 2010 and was interrupted in March 2011 when the earthquake severely damaged the accelerator. But Tanaka said through a “heroic effort,” the team managed to pull everything back together in six months.

Tanaka said scientists had always deduced muon neutrinos could transform into electron neutrinos, but this is the first time anyone has seen one disappear and the other appear.

Now scientists want to see if neutrinos’ counterparts will do the same thing, he said. If it turns out that anti-muon neutrinos do not transform into anti-electron neutrinos at the same pace, then that could point to an asymmetry between electron neutrinos and anti-electron neutrinos.

While that imbalance doesn’t necessarily solve the matter-antimatter conundrum, it’s a start, said Tanaka.

“There are a family of particles, and by studying one, you can sort of infer some of the properties of others in the family,” he said. “And it’s actually other members of the family that we believe are responsible for this imbalance in the universe.”

Tanaka said to see whether an imbalance exists between the way muon neutrinos and anti-muon neutrinos transform, an enormous cavern would need to be dug out of a mountain to fit in a much larger detector — a project that is currently in the proposal stage.

“By studying these elementary particles, we’re sort of looking at the universe near the time of the Big Bang,” he said.

“It gives us a glimpse into what might have happened, what particles where doing, and explaining how the universe started from the Big Bang to where we are now, with galaxies, and molecules and…people.”

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Archaeologists discover Jerusalem's earliest alphabetical written text

As reported by Xinhua, July 10, 2013:

JERUSALEM, July 10 (Xinhua) -- Working near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, archaeologists have unearthed the earliest alphabetical written text ever uncovered in the city.

Dr. Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University's Institute of Archeology, who led the team, told Xinhua on Wednesday that the inscription dated to the 10th century BC, and predates by 250 years the earliest known alphabetical written text found in Jerusalem.

The excavation was conducted in collaboration with Israel Antiquities Authority, Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and the East Jerusalem Development Company. The findings are published in the current issue of Israel Exploration Journal, in a co-authored article by Mazar, Prof. Shmuel Ahituv of Ben-Gurion University, and Dr. David Ben-Shlomo of the Hebrew University.

The text was engraved on the rim of a large ceramic jar before it was fired, and only a fragment of it has been found, along with fragments of six other jars of the same type.

According to Ahituv, the inscription is engraved in an early Canaanite, an ancient group of Semitic languages spoken by the people of Canaan, a region stretching across modern-day Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Syria.

The jar was made before the Israelite rule and the prevalence of Hebrew script, the researchers said. Therefore, according to Ahituv, the text was likely to have been written by one of the non- Israeli residents of Jerusalem, perhaps Jebusites, who were part of the city population in the time of Kings David and Solomon.

Mazar said archeologist can read the letters engraved on the jar -- M, Q, P, H, N, possibly an L, and N, but the meaning of these letters will remain a mystery. "No one today can decipher Canaanite," said Mazar.

Egyptian sphinx discovered in Israel

As reported by the Jerusalem Post, July 10, 2013:

Archeologists in Israel have made an amazing and unexpected find - the toes and lower feet of an Egyptian Sphinx linked to a pharaoh known for his pyramid construction.

The feet, believed to be part of a larger statue, was uncovered at the archeological site at Tel Hazor, north of Tiberias, by a team from the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University, led by Prof. Amnon Ben-Tor and Dr. Sharon Zuckerman.

The Sphinx was discovered in the layer of Tel Hazor that was destroyed during the 13th century BCE, at the entrance to the city palace.

The fragment carries a hieroglyphic inscription mentioning the name of Mycerinus, who ruled Egypt more than 4,000 years ago, and was responsible for the construction of one of the great pyramids in Giza.

It is the only known Sphinx of this king discovered anywhere in the world — including Egypt - and the only piece of a royal Sphinx sculpture discovered in the entire Levant area (the eastern Mediterranean).

But the archaeologists believe that the sphinx was likely brought to Israel some four thousand years ago, rather than there being a relationship between Egypt and ancient Israel that led to its construction at the site of discovery.

The hieroglyphic inscription found between the toes includes the descriptor “Beloved by the divine manifestation… that gave him eternal life.” Ben-Tor and Dr. Zuckerman believe that this indicates the likelihood that the Sphinx originated in the ancient city of Heliopolis, not far from modern Cairo.
Go here for a more detailed article about this discovery.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Pakistani Christian girl accused of blasphemy against Islam is now in Canada with her family

As reported by Terry Glavin of the Ottawa Citizen, July 1, 2013:

Until the Canada Day weekend, it was a closely-guarded secret in Ontario’s Pakistani √©migr√© community that Rimsha Masih, the Christian girl whose entrapment in Pakistan’s barbaric blasphemy laws captured headlines around the world last year, was living incognito with her family in Canada.

While much of Rimsha’s harrowing saga can now be told, her story is just one small drama in a much larger and necessarily untold story involving scores — sometimes hundreds — of people who are secreted into Canada every year.

In the case of 13-year-old Rimsha, it was only after she was recognized at a Mississauga shopping mall and a Toronto-based advocacy group confirmed the basic facts of the case last week that her parents consented, on Saturday, to allow Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney to speak publicly about the story.

“There was no point in denying it by then. It was becoming a known fact in the community,” Kenney told me on Sunday. “This was being dealt with in extreme discretion. I don’t want to be too dramatic about this, but they’ve had targets painted on their backs for the better part of a year.”

While Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are an outrage against international human rights norms, Rimsha’s case was especially notorious. Initial reports described Rimsha as a child with Down’s Syndrome who stood accused of having burned a Koran, and the proceedings against her almost immediately revealed that she’d been framed by a fanatical Muslim cleric, a neighbour with a grudge against the family.

Blasphemy allegations targeting Pakistan’s tiny Christian community sometimes fail to produce convictions, but they rarely fail to provoke lynch-mob violence, pogroms and assassinations. The Masih family had “gone underground” last September, and even though a November high court ruling ordered a dismissal of the charges against Rimsha, whose disability involves a slight intellectual impairment, the death threats persisted.

After furtive contacts between Ottawa and the family’s protectors in Pakistan and a series of expedited deliberations at the Canadian High Commission in Islamabad, Rimsha, her parents and her three siblings arrived in Canada March 13. Rimsha’s parents are Misrak and Mariyam Masih, her sisters are Rubacca, 15 and Cloudia, 10, and her brother is Anosh, 8.

The family is receiving some assistance via the refugee assistance program, to help them through their first year in Canada. They are also being helped by the Pakistani-Canadian Christian community, Kenney said. The family is living somewhere in the Greater Toronto Area, “which is all we’re going to say...”

...Roughly 1,000 people have been swept up by Pakistan’s blasphemy laws since 1986, more than half of them during past five years. Kenney said he was already “acutely aware” of the mortal threats involved, not least because of the Pakistani Taliban’s March 2011 assassination of his friend Shabaz Bhatti, the crusading Pakistani MP who was an outspoken opponent of Islamabad’s blasphemy laws.

Bhatti’s brother Peter, president of the Toronto-based International Christian Voice, was instrumental in developing the lines of communication between Ottawa and the Masih family in Islamabad. Peter Bhatti has also taken a leading role in helping the family settle in the Toronto area...

...To come to the aid of a person accused of blasphemy in Pakistan is to take one’s life into one’s hands. In January, 2011, Punjab provincial governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by a member of his own security team for having taken up the cause of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death by hanging in 2010 for an act of blasphemy that she denies committing. Bibi’s case is under appeal.

Getting Rimsha Masih’s family spirited out in Pakistan was a slow and dangerous process.

“It took some time because of the danger for them to procure passports for her and her family,” Kenney said, “but as soon as that happened we ensured that our High Commission processed permits for them to come to Canada.”
While I rejoice that the Masih family is out of immediate harm's way, I suspect that it doesn't necessarily mean that they're safe even in Toronto. Given the multicultural monstrosity that Trudeaupia (still officially known as "Canada" has become), it's not outside the realm of possibility that the same mentality that persecuted the Masih family in Pakistan may be at work in Canada. Let us pray for the safety of these Christians in Canada and, of course, in their homelands.