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Irish Catholic, January 2005

Is a tsunami, an Act of God?More than 150,000 dead and five million people at risk, can the victims of the Indian Ocean earthquake believe in a loving God?

The date of Sunday December 26th 2004, St Stephen's Day, which was celebrated Liturgically as the Feast of the Holy Family will be remembered for centuries as a day of almost incomprehensible disaster. The earthquake beneath the sea generated shockwaves that travelled more than 5,000 miles across the sea and which produced massive waves of water that crashed into the coasts of 11 different countries, stretching from Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia in east Africa, through the Maldives, Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, to Burma, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. In some places villages and towns were swept away by waves more than 22 meters high. The worst area hit was the Aceh province of Indonesian Sumatra, where whole towns and villages were swept away. So far the Indonesian government is putting the total death toll for the country at more than 80,000 and has admitted that the true death toll will probably never be known.

On the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which belong to India and which lie in the middle of the Indian Ocean, relief agencies had been unable to make contact with survivors at the time The Irish Catholic was going to press. But it is reckoned that 80 per cent of the population of those islands have perished, including whole tribes of indigenous peoples whose cultures are now extinct.

In just one instance, more than 1,700 people were killed when massive waves swamped and overturned a train, named 'Queen of the Sea', in Sri Lanka the worst rail disaster in history, but which probably represents less than half a per cent of the people killed across two continents. Naturally, in the western news media there has been a focus on victims from the west more than 1,000 Swedish tourists and more than 1,000 German tourists were killed and at least 20 Irish people are missing, presumed dead, with three Irish deaths officially recorded so far.


The United Nations general secretary Kofi Annan says the scale of the disaster is unprecedented. Certainly, the only comparable event dates back to the start of the Modern Age and the earthquake that hit Lisbon on November 1st, All Saints Day, 1755.

The effects of the Lisbon earthquake nearly 250 years ago were felt on the both sides of the Atlantic with massive waves, known as tsunumis which are generated by the motion of the earth, hit the coasts of North and South America, causing devastation particularly in low lying Caribbean Islands. The north African coast was also hit by massive tidal waves, as were western European coasts as far north as Finland. In Ireland, it is said that the tsunamis generated by the Lisbon earthquake caused Kinvarra Castle in Co. Clare to be washed away. Across the south western coast of Ireland there are massive rocks that were thrown up by the waves and at Barleycove near Schull, the sand dunes there are said to have been created by the sea waves caused by the Lisbon disaster.

The Lisbon disaster was held up by the French writer Voltaire, known as the father of the Enlightment, as proof that Christians were wrong in their belief in a loving and merciful God. Although baptized a Catholic, Voltaire was a deist and, as such, believed that although God created the earth, God does not interfere with the world or create miracles a view at odds with the Catholic faith. In his writings, particularly 'Candide', Voltaire lampooned those Christians who believed that the Lisbon earthquake, which occured in the morning while many were at Mass, was the result of an Act of God, a punishment that had been meted out because of the activity of heretics or witches, real or imagined, in the Portugeuse capital.

This view of natural disasters as Acts of God belongs very much to Old Testament theology, as seen in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. But today Christians reject the idea that storms, earthquakes and other natural phenomena are a sign of God's displeasure. Nevertheless, the question of why God allows suffering to occur in the world is one of the most difficult in theology.

According to St. Paul (Romans 5:3-5) Christians should rejoice in suffering because it produces endurance, hope and character and today the Catechism of the Catholic Church commends the "acceptance of suffering" as one of the methods of doing penance and attaining conversion. In the 4th century St Augustine said 'God would not allow any evil to exist unless out of it he could draw a greater good. This is part of the wisdom and goodness of God' and this view is also echoed in the Catechism which says that as the People of God we share in the royal office of Christ and "For the Christian, 'to reign is to serve him', particularly when serving 'the poor and the suffering, in whom the Church recognises the image of her poor and suffering founder'".

Speaking briefly to the Irish Catholic in the wake of the Indian Ocean disaster, Bishop John Kirby of Clonfert, who is chairman of the Catholic aid agency Trocaire, said: "I dispute the logic and the theology that traditionally led to natural disasters being referred to as 'an Act of God'. The focus now should be on helping the survivors in whatever way possible."

Certainly, the response of the Irish public to the disaster has been phenomenal - within days some €4m worth of donations to the relief effort had been received from the Irish public and it was public pressure that led the Irish government to increase its offical aid package from an original donation of €1m to a new total sum of €10m.

Looking at what happened in the aftermath of the Lisbon tragedy, it is worth noting that it led to the birth of seismology and the scientific study of the causes of earthquakes and how they can be prevented. We now understand that earthquakes are a result of the drift of the earth's continents and the collision of the earth's tectonic plates, something that was not understood 250 years ago, which made it far easier to interpret natural calamities as Acts of God.

Indeed, study of natural disasters does show that they do not affect people equally - but it is not the good who escape the greatest punishment, but those who have the most money. Studies of natural disasters over the last century show that if you are poor you are more likely to suffer in a natural calamity.

Notably, on the rim of the Pacific Ocean, there is an international early warning system in place to alert coastal populations about approaching tsunamis, but no such early warning systems exist among the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean - the chief reason for this is that the nations of the Indian Ocean are poorer than those of the Pacific. Once the earthquake took place, deaths were inevitable - but the total number of casualties could have been significantly reduced if an alarm system, an act of man, had been put in place.