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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Internet gets religion

By ANGELA PACIENZA

Monday, May 9, 2005 Updated at 9:42 AM EDT

Canadian Press

TORONTO What's up with matzo bread? What do you need for a Seder?

Passover traditions are explained in a light-hearted way in a new multimedia website devoted to Passover education.

It's just the latest example of how religious groups have taken to the web in droves to build community and share traditions among tech-savvy followers.

"We're trying to make Passover available to everybody," says Rabbi Mendel Kaplan of Chabad at Flamingo in Thornhill, Ont.

His synagogue launched www.chabadflamingo.com/passover recently based on material provided by the international Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

"Just about everybody is on-line today so whether it's a recipe you want, a deeper mystical understanding of these traditions or simply instructions on how one is supposed to perform the observance, we've got it."

Religious groups, like so many others, started launching websites in the mid-1990s shortly after search engines became mainstream, recognizing the public could now scout for whatever faith they felt like learning about, said Lorne Dawson, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo, in southern Ontario, who studies the sociology of the Internet and co-authored Religion On-line: Finding Faith on the Internet.

"It created a snowball effect. Every religion sees all its competitors going on-line and feels 'we can't be left behind,"' he said.

"Appearances matter in religion just like any other aspect of the world. It's public relations. It used to be done by building buildings."

Nowadays church groups e-mail daily inspirations, offer virtual prayer groups and even allow surfers to participate in pilgrimages from the comfort of home.

Carmelite nuns in Indianapolis, for instance, use the web to offer a School of Prayer to Roman Catholics at www.praythenews.com.

Last year, the Vatican began sending text messages of Pope John Paul's "Thought of the Day" to mobile phones.

The Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif., offers radio-style podcasting, MP3s of Christian music and does live weekly webcasts of worship services and Bible classes as part of what it calls its "Internet ministry."

"After sex it may be the most pervasive topic on-line," says Dawson.

"There's practically not a religious group or orientation or viewpoint I can think of in the world that I haven't gone on-line and immediately encountered multiple sites dealing with it, even if it's something relatively obscure."

For Kaplan, offering his congregation, as well as other Jews, a place to learn about their spirituality on-line is vital to an evolving religion.

"As the world changes so does the medium of sharing the beauty and pageantry of our faith," says Kaplan.

The Passover site receives about 2,000 page views a day many from people who've never stepped foot in his synagogue or even live in Canada.

"We've never seen them before but they're regular visitors [on-line]," says Kaplan, adding that he believes his site is the "most comprehensive web-based source in the world" on Passover.

Using content from the main Chabad organization, the site offers printable colouring pages for young kids, recipes and a day-by-day planning calendar.

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