Keeping faith in Second Life

San Francisco, USA - It is a Friday evening in Second Life and Beth Odets lights Shabbat candles at Temple Beit Israel, which she created in the virtual world a year and a half ago.

"Shabbat Shalom everyone!" Odets says in a typed instant message to animated figures standing patiently in the synagogue.

The congregants appear to be youthful characters, some dressed in hats with horns on them, form-flattering pants, and decorated shirts.

They respond in kind to Odets before candles are lit and a blessing recited.

After a ceremony marking the start of the Jewish holy day, the "avatars" serving as Second Life proxies for real-world people chat about the Torah, Passover, and films.

Second Life had approximately 2,000 residents when Odets built the temple.

Now there are nearly nine million people using the on-line digital world owned by San Francisco-based Linden Lab. And they are increasingly communing with their god as well as each other.

"There's been a big explosion in Second Life of religious groups," said California state university professor Tom Boellstorff, who has spent three years studying virtual cultures and forms of religious practice in Second Life.

"I have seen the major religions, mostly Christian and Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist and new age groups. There are places on the Jewish island where you can even click to convert."

Second Life resident Muhammedyussif Wikinger, whose real-world persona is 64-year-old Sweden-based psychiatrist Muhammed Yussif Widhe, found a spiritual home in a virtual version of the Mezquita (Mosque) de Cordoba in Spain.

Wikinger is on the board of directors of the Mosque of Chebi in Second Life and says the virtual world offers a strong Muslim community and a far-reaching venue for teaching about Islam.

The virtual mosque with its 150 members is a spiritual haven for Wikinger, whose town in Sweden lacks a vibrant Muslim community.

"I am praying on my carpet at home at the same time my avatar is praying in the virtual mosque," said Wikinger.

When curious avatars fly or teleport to the mosque he greets them wearing a full Saudi Arabic dress called a dishdasha at the entrance.

He answers questions and teaches visitors proper mosque etiquette, including removing virtual shoes; washing hands once inside, and women putting on veils available in a large clay-colored pot by the main doors.

"I am happy to be here and explain the Islamic way of life and in which way we use the virtual world of Second Life to express our religious feeling," Wikinger told AFP.

"I think Islam can explain itself better here."

Odets contends worship in Second Life doesn't conflict with real-world religious practices.

She stayed off the computer the first two nights of Passover and does Shabbat candle lighting ritual two hours before sunset, at which time orthodox Jews are to shun the use of electronics.

Odets said her mom routinely helps her light candles in Second Life. Her parents' avatars flanked her during a Second Life Passover ceremony this year.

"While we can recreate the feeling of certain kinds of events we can't actually substitute them for the real life experience," Odets said.

Boellstorff believes religion fits naturally in the virtual world and is there to stay.

"There is a way in which virtual worlds tap into something that is non-physical for many religions," Boellstorff told AFP.

"The religion stuff is never going to go away."