Students look to religion after tsunami

In a thatched-roof cafe in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, college students talk about faith as their city recovers from the deadly December wave.

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The Roments Cafe is not the sort of place where you would typically go to have a theological conversation. It's a college hangout, a bit like that coffee shop on the American sitcom "Friends" but with a few decidedly Acehnese touches: a large open-air courtyard with a thatched roof of palm leaves, a water buffalo grazing in a rice paddy out back, and a wide array of snacks steamed in banana leaves.

But it was in this unlikely setting, on a recent afternoon, that a table full of college students - business students Rully and Taufan, and architecture students Vida and Sarah - found themselves talking about their faith, and how it had become even stronger after the devastating tsunami of Dec. 26.

"I was born a Muslim in my family, so of course, I believe in God," says Rully, an economics student who sports a terminally hip goatee and a black T-shirt and jeans. "After the tsunami disaster, I know my faith is getting stronger, because I see all disaster, it's a sign of the power of God. Human beings are controlled by God. We cannot do anything without God."

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Surprising as these words may seem to an outsider, they reflect a common sentiment here in Aceh, the most Islamic province in the largest Muslim country in the world.

Those who viewed the tsunami disaster on their television sets may find themselves challenged by the question: How could God let this happen? Yet those who have lived through the tragedy - and the city of Banda Aceh lost more than 200,000 people, more than all the other countries of the Indian Ocean combined - view it in a much more benign manner. For them, the shaking earth and the fearsome wave were a reminder both of God's power, and of God's overpowering love.

The atmosphere at Roments helps these college kids forget the overwhelming damage created by the massive tsunami, at least for a while.

Roments is pronounced like the English word "romance," and there is a fair amount of people-watching going on at any given hour on any given day. Unlike in many stricter Muslim countries, there is no rule here that forbids "nice girls" from visiting a place without a male relative. Friends can chat here, flirt here, talk about ideas here.

As a waiter brings two coffees for the men and two teas for the women, Rully talks about a friend from his neighborhood who disappeared, and an uncle who disappeared when he took a boat trip to nearby Sabang Island off the coast of Banda Ache on the day of the tsunami.

But while Rully mourns the deaths of these people, he says the larger message for him is a call to become a better person.

"When the disaster comes, I say in my heart, I am afraid to die," he admits. "When I heard that my friend was gone, I just feel if I'm going to meet God, I just want to be a better person, a good person so maybe God will send me to heaven." He laughs. "It's His decision, not mine."

Sarah says she lost a cousin who had been traveling to Uleelheu beach in Banda Aceh on the day of the tsunami. Even so, she sees the tsunami as a sad but necessary message from a loving parent.

"I think God does not show that he's angry [with us]," she says, stirring her cup of hot tea with a spoon.

"In my mind, I just think, 'Oh, God really cares about us.' Maybe God wants the people in Banda Aceh to come back to the right way, not in the wrong way. So God gives a chance to us. [He says,] 'Come on, come back to the right way, not the wrong way, come on, come on,' like that."

Taufan says the tsunami brought at least one good thing: an end to the constant conflict between separatist Acehnese rebels and the Indonesian government, a conflict that made the streets of his city an occasional war zone.

"Before the tsunami, the security in Aceh is very bad," says Taufan, an economics student. "It was the worst that I have ever seen. I can never go out at night, and we don't have any freedom here. But from now on, the freedom will come to Aceh now."

Yet for Vida, an architecture student, the benefits are more personal, and eternal. "We are sure that God loves us," says Vida, "because in Islam they said that if God loves us, he will give us an examination, and with our passion, it will lessen our sins. So God wants with this disaster, God gives us this examination so that we would walk on this world without sins, so when we meet Him at the end of days, and maybe we'll be better to have a better life."

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