- Hate campaign against of Philadelphia Church followers on the rise since March 2020
- The Swiss pastor is criticized even after death saying he brought COVID-19 to Jaffna
- Philadelphia Church followers traumatized, local pastor claims doing counseling
- Swiss pastor alleged of conversions in his March 2020 visit based on earlier video
- Pastor died last week; Jaffna-based online media still criticize him
When the first COVID-19 patient, a visiting Sri Lankan born Swiss pastor, was identified in Jaffna by mid- March last year among a local churchgoing community, the church came under severe criticism and condemnation in social media platforms.
The global pandemic was used as an effective tool to spread misinformation and hatred against a churchgoing community in social media platforms and other messaging apps targeting the pastor who came to hold prayers.
Degrading images of religious leaders and memes made with images of church going people were taken out of context to shame them for ‘spreading the virus’ in addition to ‘converting the local people’ to their missionary.
With the death of Swiss based Pastor Paul Satkunarajah on Saturday, the digital vilification in social media platforms and news websites emerged once again nearly after eleven months.
On January 16, Pastor Paul Satkunarajah passed away following a brief illness in Switzerland, a spokesperson from the church confirmed. However, his name is continued to be linked as the first COVID-19 patient to visit the Northern region last March.
Kaalaikathir, a Jaffna based Tamil daily ran a news report on Jan. 18 titled the Switzerland based pastor “who brought COVID-19 to Jaffna’ passed away. Other news websites also carried similar reports.
Pastor Selvarajah Rameswaran John, administrator of Philadelphia Church who was coordinating with the Switzerland based Pastor during his stay in Jaffna said that soon after he too tested positive, the whole church community was subjected to humiliation and vilification by both online and offline by various parties.
“It is very regrettable that even after our Pastor Paul Satkunarajah passed away he is still being criticized. In our culture, we do not speak ill of the dead but it is very painful for us to witness this,” Pastor John said while stressing that after the death of the pastor, he received many calls from persons asking whether others who were infected are doing fine.
As a result, Pastor John said many church going people are suffering continuous humiliation and marginalization from the society for their religious beliefs. “I had to focus on counselling people in our church who were struggling with other economic and mental issues caused by the pandemic soon after this incident.”
With fake news and misinformation coupled with distorted facts used to criticise the conduct of the Missionary church in social media over the incident of Swiss pastor’s visit, Pastor John regretted that many of his churchgoers were subjected to humiliation and facing the danger of being outcast in society.
HATE CAMPAIGN AGAINST CHURCH, FOLLWERS
One of the Facebook user named Suraangani in Tamil said “all women who participated in the prayers have gone hiding” using images previous Church ceremonies and choir extensively to vilify the churchgoing people, linking them with the spread of the virus in the North where religious tensions emerged occasionally, particularly against Christian missionary groups in the post-war period.
These images were taken from the official social media handles of the Church and the personal profiles of churchgoing people and were edited heavily in order to make memes to mock the churchgoing community as whole.
The graphical contents related to the Church were taken from its official handles of Facebook and Youtube. The following original images, taken out of context to spread fake news and misinformation connecting church with COVID-19 were also used in mainstream media. The reporting over the incident can be accessed here and here.
The first patient to be identified with COVID-19 in Jaffna and presently admitted at the Jaffna Teaching Hospital’s special unit which has been set up to treat COVID-19 has found to have closely interacted with the Swiss Pastor during his stay in Sri Lanka.
Source of graphical contents used for misinformation
Two tools were used to track the original images from the Facebook account of the Church which were misused later. https://graph.tips/facebook.html- is an Open Source tool to track the posts and photos of a particular account.
A mere Google Reverse image will provide links of the photos in which these photos were misused by news websites and blogs. Accordingly, this photo was uploaded to the Facebook page of the Church on January 2, 2o20- nearly two months before the misinformation campaign.
This original image was also tracked on the official Facebook handle of the Church by using the tool- https://graph.tips/facebook.html By further analysing through another Facebook open source tool called https://www.whopostedwhat.com to monitor the posts of a Facebook account in a particular time period, it was established that most of the misused photos were taken from recent Church ceremonies as uploaded to the Facebook account of the church.
Pastor Paul Satkunarajah’s visit to Jaffna
Based in Bern, Switzerland, the Philadelphia Missionary Church (PMC) has a wide network of Churches across the globe including one in Northern Sri Lanka. It’s Jaffna branch Church is located in Ariyalai, Jaffna where it has a significant following.
The Church was founded by Pastor Paul Satkunarajah, who hailed from Jaffna and currently resides in Switzerland where he administers the Church activities and its projects.
On March 11, Pastor Paul Satkunarajah arrived into the country with mild fever, proceeded to Jaffna in a hired van to monitor the projects that were undertaken by the local Church and took part in prayers with a limited number of attendees. Soon after he returned to Switzerland, he was admitted to local hospital where he tested positive for COVID-19.
Even before the Health authorities confirmed the Pastor Satkunarajah tested positive, unverified claims and posts were shared in social media platforms, particularly in Facebook.
A screenshot of a Facebook profile named ‘Joshua Rajanesan Dhuirairajasingham’, confirming that the Pastor contracted the virus went viral. When checked for its authenticity of the post using the tool of –Who posted what?, a dedicated tool to track profiles, it showed that there were no such profiles under that name. (The tool was conceptualized by Henk van Ess, developed by Daniel Endresz and Dan Nemec, GUI by Tormund Gerhardsen)
After the Northern Provincial Health authorities got it confirmed that the pastor tested positive and initiated the contact tracing process to track those who attended the church prayers, the social media platforms saw the unusual number of posts blaming the Church and churchgoing people for spreading virus in the region.
SRI LANLAN VERSION OF SOUTH LOREA’S PATIENT 31?
Posts and memes degrading the Church pastors and churchgoing people were widely shared on Facebook alleging that the Church acted irresponsibly and even in some instances drawing examples of South Korea’s 31’st patient, who caused an outbreak after taking part in church prayers.
Then followed the fake news and targeted misinformation campaigns against the Church. Statements issued by regional health authorities and sound bites of local politicians were framed in a way to portray that the Church and the people belonging to the Church should be held responsible if there was to be an outbreak. Local Church administrator pastor Selvarajah Rameswaran John too tested positive along with others who interacted closely with the Switzerland based pastor.
Over 1500 persons, majority from Ariyalai in Jaffna were isolated and closer contacts were sent to military run quarantine centers. Personal details collected by local health authorities during the contact tracing process were also released in social media to spread hatred among local communities.
Meanwhile Provincial Director of Health Services of North Dr.A.Ketheeswaran noted that soon after the Swiss pastor visited the region, the first COVID-19 patient was identified in early March and altogether 16 patients were identified during the contact tracing process.
Soon after recovering from COVID-19, Pastor Paul Satkunarajah issued a video statement from Switzerland refuting allegations that he failed to comply with COVID-19 regulations that were put in place in Sri Lanka at that time. He also regretted that the incident was being used to attack him and the people belong to the church.
FAKE NEWS ON RELIGIOS CONCERSION
In addition to the images, video footages from the official YouTube handle of the church were also taken to portray that the Church is involved in religious conversion by ridiculing some of the practices followed by the church.
This video footage which went viral on Facebook claiming that the Church is involved in religious conversion was taken from the official YouTube channel of the Church. The original video was from the annual convention of the Church held in 2013 in Jaffna.
A Google reverse image search of the Facebook video was used to find out if the video was used in other platforms as well. Another searching tool TinEye was used for this purpose. Amnesty International’s Citizen Evidence Lab tool -https://citizenevidence.amnestyusa.org/ YouTube Data Viewer was also used to extract the thumbnails of the video.
Even some of the comments made under the posts related to PMC were coupled with hatred and offensive.
Meanwhile civil society activist and human rights defender Ruki Fernando said that there have been several like this documented across the region during the pandemic where religious minorities were targeted with misinformation campaigns and fake news.
“We recently noticed how Muslims were portrayed as COVID-19 carriers after a rapid cluster is formed in an area where they reside in significant numbers,”