08/02/2005, 00.00
MALAYSIA
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Indignant imams flatten teapot deity's commune

They were adoring a giant teapot. They believed their founder was the incarnation of all deities.Armed with bulldozers, police and Imam razed the buildings of this sect. They had many proselytes even among Muslims.

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews/Scmp) - Worshipping a giant teapot and claiming to be god in the unforgiving heartland of fundamentalist Islam is like waving a red banner at a bull. For nearly 25 years, Ariffin Mohammed, 65, a Muslim Malay better known as Ayah Pin or Father Pin, has been harassed, arrested and even jailed to force him to recant his 'Sky Kingdom' faith and return to the true path of Sunni Islam.

He refused and finally, on Sunday, matters came to a head. Islamic clerics and police marched into the commune in Batu 13 village, in peninsular Malaysia's eastern Terengganu state, accompanied by bulldozers, arrested followers and tore down buildings, bringing down the curtain on a sometimes laughable but still unique interfaith commune.

"He had to be stopped," said Abdul Hamid Othman, head of Islamic affairs in Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's office. "He violated the sanctity of Islam and his teachings were a threat to national security." But human rights activists condemned the action as a serious violation of fundamental liberty.

"They are innocent people who have been brutally attacked and traumatised," said Elizabeth Wong, secretary-general of the Malaysian Human Rights Association. "They have not broken any laws."

Started in the mid-1980s, the commune existed outside the national radar for many years until in 1998, when followers added the now famous Disney-like theme park structures - umbrella-shaped buildings, ornamental fishing boats, Greco-Roman pillars and the centrepiece of it all - a huge teapot and an equally large blue vase.

Despite the incongruity, or because of it, Mr Ayah began to win many followers - among villagers, educated urbanites put off by the rat race and even foreigners.

The teapot - symbolising the pouring of peace and blessing from heaven on humanity - became the symbol of the cult.

"I died when I was 10 years old and was reborn 40 days later. Since then I have died and been reborn 17 times," Mr Ayah says. "All things belong to me ... I am Ayah, I am the father, and I am the god." An illiterate former farm hand, Mr Ayah says he has visions in his dreams.

"He is the reincarnation of all the gods - Shiva, Buddha, Christ and the Prophet Mohammed," said James Lee, a disciple. The cult has no moral or religious strictures and all religions are acceptable because "all prayers end up with Ayah the god".

Official attitude hardened in mid-June amid widespread international media publicity and the realisation that Mr Ayah was winning over Muslims. First the cult was branded deviant. Then the local authorities ordered Mr Ayah to take down the structures. He refused. On July 2, the police raided the commune and arrested more than 50 followers. Sixteen days later a mob attacked the commune and set fire to some of the structures. On Thursday, 50 more followers were arrested. Then on Sunday came the bulldozer raid by police and Muslim clerics.

Nothing now stands of the once thriving commune of about 1,000 followers. The faithful are scattered across the country, many in hiding. Mr Ayah has disappeared, abandoning his four wives and 22 children. His Muslim followers are awaiting trial in Islamic courts while non-Muslims were set free.

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