Jesus wept? One-sided debate from Mumbai

Where to begin?

So we have this very dedicated GetReligion reader who has been sending us URLs pointing to coverage of a skeptic’s battle to condemn Catholic leaders in India for having anything to do with legitimizing a statue of Jesus that may or may not be weeping. Before we get into a recent report in The Guardian about this controversy, let me stress two things right up front:

(1) As a total First Amendment absolutist, I cannot imagine a blasphemy law that I would applaud, in large part because they are almost always used as a way to crack down on the rights of religious (or secular) minorities or on freedom of expression in general. That’s important for reasons that will soon become clear.

(2) I think there are cases in which believers in a variety of faiths have tried to fake miracles, for reasons both lofty and crass. However, I have seen cases of events, visions, healings, etc., that simply defy easy explanations. So I think it’s fine to doubt claims of the miraculous. However, I also think that it’s important for skeptics to doubt their own doubts.

With that said, here we go:

When water started trickling down a statue of Jesus Christ at a Catholic church in Mumbai earlier this year, locals were quick to declare a miracle. Some began collecting the holy water and the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni began to promote it as a site of pilgrimage.

So when Sanal Edamaruku arrived and established that this was not holy water so much as holey plumbing, the backlash was severe. The renowned rationalist was accused of blasphemy, charged with offences that carry a three-year prison sentence and eventually, after receiving death threats, had to seek exile in Finland.

Now he is calling for European governments to press Delhi into dropping the case. And on the first leg of a tour around EU capitals on Friday, he warned that India was sacrificing freedom of expression for outdated, colonial-era rules about blasphemy.

Now, this story addresses two important topics. The first is the use and abuse of blasphemy laws in India. The second is whether Catholic officials are refusing to shut down some kind of spiritual fraud. It’s the second issue that has me rather puzzled.

Why? You see, this story contains absolutely ZERO factual material that actual describes the statue or its location. It also contains zero commentary from anyone who actually disagrees with Edamaruku’s assertions, other than for the assumed reason that they want to attack his right to voice his criticisms.

Does this matter? I mean, after all, the skeptic is automatically right. I mean, right? Here is what we are told:

Edamaruku, who has the support of rationalists and atheists such as Richard Dawkins, is well known in India for debunking religious myths, and was already unpopular among Indian Catholics for publicly criticising Mother Teresa’s legacy in Kolkata.

When the state “miracle” was pronounced, he went to Mumbai and found that the dripping water was due to clogged drainage pipes behind the wall where it stood. His revelation provoked death threats from religious zealots and ultimately charges of blasphemy under the Indian penal code in the Mumbai high court.

Now, part of the problem is that the art used by The Guardianclick here to look at that — does not appear to be of the actual statue involved in this case. For example, this statue stands away from the wall. It’s hard to imagine sewage water — as claimed by Edamaruku — dripping onto a statue that is located far from the wall. Are there pipes carrying sewage running through the high, peaked ceiling of this chapel?

Meanwhile, the image at the top of this post is from an Asia News report on this controversy. It shows a completely different statue, yet one that is also located far from a wall that might contain faulty plumbing, let alone plumbing high enough to drip down onto the statue. Again, is this sewage supposed to be running through faulty pipes in the ceiling of a church sanctuary? What’s the other option, that the church architects — long ago — designed the plumbing to run under the floor and then up and through this statue? Really?

Anyway, my journalistic point is not — heaven forbid — in support of India’s blasphemy law. Also, I am not declaring that Edamaruku’s claims have been disproven. What I am saying is that the news team that produced this alleged news story was not interested in any of the facts — physical, spiritual or otherwise — linked to debates about this statue. The skeptic’s claims are simply accepted as, well, gospel. There is no need for any journalistic work on this topic, no need for descriptive facts, no need for the voices of those who doubt the skeptic’s doubts. What is going on here?

Meanwhile, the Asia News report also included these comments from church authorities:

… Fr. Augustine Palett, PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) and pastor of Our Lady of Velankanni, said: “Something has happened here that is beyond our understanding and that has gathered together Hindus, Muslims and Christians, united in prayer. Sanal Edamaruku’s statements are unwarranted, unfounded and false. The Church does not try to make money from people’s devotion. Its institutions relentlessly serve poor and marginalized, without any discrimination of caste or creed, to build this nation. ”

In a statement, the Auxiliary Bishop of Mumbai said: “The Church is always cautious in attributing supernatural causes to out of the ordinary phenomena. Whenever possible, it always tries to find ‘scientific’ explanations for similar events. It does not pay great attention to things like this, although it accepts the possibility that God can intervene in human life in ‘extraordinary’ ways: what we call ‘miracles’ … The Irla crucifix does not belong to the Church, and it was a Hindu woman, not a Catholic, to notice the drops of water.”

These quotes prove nothing, of course. It would, however, have been interesting for Guardian scribes to have asked church officials what kinds of tests have been performed on the statue, the water dripping from it, the church facility, etc.

It’s good when journalists ask questions and quote voices on both sides of controversial issues. Right?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia

    From the Asia News: “We honour a cross because it is for use as a reminder of the love of Jesus who died for us. The Irla crucifix does not belong to the Church, and it was a Hindu woman, not a Catholic, to notice the drops of water.”

    Sounds like the crucifix was not even in a church.

  • deiseach

    I’d like more details, too. On the one hand, if this is accountable for through a prosaic explanation (such as leaky pipes or whatever), fine. On the other hand, if a ‘celebrity skeptic’ swept in denouncing everyone involved as deliberate fakers and hoaxers, I wouldn’t be surprised that he provoked hostility.

    Death threats are not something to be passed off lightly, and I would like to see from whom they came and that they are taken seriously. But the story as it stands seems to be “Rationalist is driven out in fear of his life by religious nutjobs – Catholics involved in conspiracy to bilk the credulous once again”.

    • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

      If you read the article, he was invited, he didn’t ‘sweep in’.

  • Martha

    Okay, this story is even stranger, because “The Guardian” says he explains it as being leaking sewage pipes but the “Asia News” says he atttibuted it to “capillary action”. And apparently he denounced the miracle before visiting the site, and it seems to have been his remarks about the pope that triggered the complaints – also, the church in Mumbai is named after a shrine and scene of a Marian apparition in Tamil Nadu, so there may be something more that we’re not being told to background of what is going on:

    “Speaking to local television, the president of the Indian Rationalist Association has accused the Church of exploiting the worship of images, and of “creating the miracle” to make money, finally, he also accused the pope of being anti-science. Edamaruku then personally visited the site, arguing that this water was just a “capillary phenomenon”, explained by elementary scientific concepts. The Association of Concerned Catholics (Aocc) condemned the man for the defamatory statements against the Church and the pope, demanding an official apology.”

    And here is his interview with the “New Scientist” from July:

    “What was the so-called “miracle” you recently investigated in Mumbai?
    The priest and the very active Catholic laity organisations associated with the Our Lady of Velankanni church in Mumbai were promoting the idea that water dripping from the feet of a statue of Jesus was a sign from God. Hundreds of believers flocked to the dripping cross, collecting and consuming “holy” drainage water that they believed would cure all ailments.

    What prompted you to intervene?
    I was invited to the Delhi studio of TV9, a Mumbai-based national channel, to comment. During the programme, I rejected the possibility of a miracle, but of course could not give scientific explanations without an investigation. The channel then invited me to come to Mumbai. The church authorities agreed.

    What did you find?
    I had a close look at a nearby washroom and the connected drainage system that passed underneath the concrete base of the cross. I removed some stones from the drain and found it was blocked. I touched the walls, the base and the cross and took some photographs for documentation. It was very simple: water from the washroom, which had been blocked in the clogged drainage system, had been transmitted via capillary action into the adjacent walls and the base of the cross as well as into the wooden cross itself. The water came out through a nail hole and ran down over the statue’s feet.

    You now face possible arrest. Why?
    Leaders of two Catholic laity organisations have launched charges against me under section 295A of the Indian penal code. This charges a person with “deliberately hurting religious feelings and attempting malicious acts intended to outrage the religious sentiments of any class or community”. It is absurd to claim that I did anything of the sort.

    What do you fear might happen to you?
    If it comes to a trial, I have nothing to fear. I would welcome the opportunity to throw some light on the role that the Catholic church played and is still playing today, here in India. The possibility of arrest is threatening, however.

    Do you have any regrets about intervening?
    Why would one not intervene when somebody gives gullible people sewage to drink? But my reason is broader. The promotion of superstition and belief in paranormal phenomena dulls people’s minds and establishes dangerous misconceptions about reality in our society. Such efforts have to be countered.

    Why do people so readily believe in miracles?
    For many, the regressive belief in superstitions and miracles is an escape from the hardships of life. Once trapped into irrationalism, they become more incapable of mastering reality. It is a vicious circle, like an addiction. They become vulnerable to exploitation by astrologers, godmen, dubious pseudo-psychologists, corrupt politicians and the whole mega-industry of irrationalism.”

    Well, if you go around giving interviews on national television and to Western publications that the church is perpetrating deliberate fraud and putting the health of people at risk, and that the clergy and lay organisations involved are swindlers and hoaxers, I can see why some people might take that as “deliberately hurting religious feelings”. I don’t think a blasphemy charge is any help in this case, but it seems to have been taken out by lay people rather than the hierarchy.

  • sari

    “These quotes prove nothing, of course. It would, however, have been interesting for Guardian scribes to have asked church officials what kinds of tests have been performed on the statue, the water dripping from it, the church facility, etc.”

    Absolutely, especially since Edamaruku’s claims would be very easy to prove or disprove. Capillary action of water through other substances is a well known and understood phenomenon. One question I had when reading the article concerned whether or not church authorities had made themselves accessible to reporters; that is, were they approached and did they agree or refuse to be interviewed? The statement from the Auxiliary Bishop says little and appears, if anything, to disavow any connection between the miraculous crucifix and an actual miracle. And who is the Auxiliary Bishop? Surely he has a name. Could he be the previously mentioned “Catholic archbishop of Bombay, Oswald, Cardinal Gracias”, the man Edamaruku says requires a formal apology or is he someone else?

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    sari, FYI, the auxiliary’s name is Agnelo Rufino Gracias, probably not related to Cardinal Gracias.

    What bothers me about this is that whenever there’s a claim of a miracle like this alleged weeping statue, a Church investigation is started and they look for obvious things like leaking pipes and capillary action. Very often, the claims are dismissed by Church authorities because of such factors. There are also protocols set out for investigating claims of Marian apparitions. There also the well-known investigations that take place for any claimed miracle at Lourdes and there are extensive investigations into any claims about miracles for the beatification or canonization of saints. That The Guardian assumed the Church instantly believes everyone who makes a claim about a miracle is testament to The Guardian’s own bias.

    • sari

      That kind of bugged me, too, Thomas. Even I know the Church has protocols in place; the article as written made it sound like two different Catholic factions are squaring off, one of which wants an apology (and, presumably, a retraction) in order to maintain the status quo and the other of which appears to disavow the miracle altogether. Better to say that Edamaruku provided a *possible* explanation rather than to cite his view as fact.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Again, is this sewage supposed to be running through faulty pipes in the ceiling of a church sanctuary? What’s the other option, that the church architects — long ago — designed the plumbing to run under the floor and then up and through this statue? Really?

    You can see video of the investigation here, which illustrate the course of water flow Edamaruku proposes. Might have been useful for the Guardian to link to it. …

    • sari

      No one’s mentioned if the water’s been tested for the pathogens usually present in sewage.

  • John M.

    Can someone ask Edamaruku what it would take in order for him to believe that this (or anything else) were a miracle?

    -John

  • northcoast

    Thanks, Ray, for the link to the video. I was hoping that it would show more views of the crucifix. It does show the surrounding floor, which appears to be paved with concrete blocks. The explanation is believable if there is no water above the statue’s feet, and it should be easy to verify. I didn’t find any mention of weeping from the eyes or anything to indicate that there was water above the feet of the statue.

    According to Asia News the crucifix known as the Cross of Irla is located near a large Catholic facility but is not on Church property. It appears to stand in a courtyard protected by a framed enclosure with glass or clear plastic panels, possibly to protect the statue from the elements. The Asia News article is dated March 2012, when the water was first noticed. See this: http://www.dnaindia.com/mumbai/report_mad-rush-to-see-jesus-miracle_1658904 for more information; just not all that we might wish.

    Since coming across Our Lady of Lavang Church in New Orleans I have had an interest in the intersection of Catholicism and Asian Cultures, (see http://www.neworleanschurches.com/lavang/lavang.htm, and scroll to second page). If I understand the DNA India article, the drops were first noticed by a woman who prays regularly at the cross after having attended to Hindu rituals.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Question for the GetReligion crew – should this story have received more mainstream coverage? Why or why not? Should it have been mentioned in coverage of, say, Rimsha Masih?

    • sari

      No, Ray. The two stories are not equivalent on any level. One involved a cognitively delayed *child* caught up in Sharia Law. The other involves a man who comes across as a blatant self-promoter who’s alleged many things but offered little proof to substantiate his claims, including the death threats. Whether or not one believes in miracles or religion, one can accept others as they are and treat them with respect. Though the media promotes his worldview, he comes through as a less than sympathetic character and one who’d just as happily impose the laws on others that he claims are being imposed on him.

      His is an attention-getting blurb. Hers illustrates the very real problems inherent in the rigid application of religious law.

  • tmatt

    RAY:
    It certainly should be referenced in any stories about blasphemy laws in India. The Pakistan case took place within the context of Islamic law.

    • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

      I rather think the point of the story is that blasphemy laws are not a specifically Islamic problem…

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