Cult took my wife - now it's funding a woodland in North Wales

Daily Post, UK/May 14, 2010

An elderly man who lost his wife to a religious cult has pleaded with the Woodland Trust not to take money from the group.

Henry Iban said he was "dismayed and saddened" that Coed Cadw (the Woodland Trust in Wales) accepted £100,000 from spiritual teacher Supreme Master Ching Hai. The money is to be used to buy and restore Cwm Mynach, a 1,000-acre valley near Dolgellau.

Coed Cadw, which has defended the gift, hopes to complete the deal in the next few days.

Mr Iban - not his real name - said the money had been donated to "buy credibility" for Ching Hai. He urged Coed Cadw to return the money, as President Clinton and the US Red Cross did with similar donations when they learned more about the organisation.

In a letter to the Trust, he wrote: "I recognise fully that you need funds for the Welsh project.

"But those of us who have had the lives of our families severely and irreversibly damaged by this cult, believe that such donations are in effect blood money."

Mr Iban refuses to use his real name. A retired senior professional in London, he said his wife, an academic, became embroiled with the cult 12 years ago.

After her behaviour and spending became erratic, they divorced, leaving Mr Iban to fend for his 10-year-old son.

"She would disappear at a moment's notice when the Supreme Master called, once on Christmas Eve," he said. "Often it was for months at a time - we didn't even know what continent she was on.

"It put a drain on the family. She had a well-paid job, which she lost, and she started buying the cult's jewellery at £7,000-£8,000-per-item.

"I tried to accommodate her but it was difficult - in the end I filed for divorce to protect the family finances."

His wife was always interested in Eastern mysticism and she fell into the cult's clutches at a spiritualist fair in London.

At first Mr Iban failed to recognise the dangers and indulged her new passion. But when he researched the group, he found the world's fastest growing cult was alarming cult watchers.

As well as being a painter, poet and Buddhist nun, Vietnamese-born Ching Hai is a fashion designer and beauty makeover consultant.

Her group promotes vegetarianism and claims to support tree planting and efforts to curb climate change.

In the US, however, Ching Hai was criticised after causing $1m damage to a mangrove plantation in a national park.

The Woodland Trust needed to raise £850,000 to buy pine-clad Cwm Mynach and restore it to native woodland.

In return for its donation, Ching Hai said it wanted to make a film about the group's trip to Wales, to be shown on its own 24-hour satellite TV station (Sky channel 835).

Coed Cadw spokesman Rory Francis defended the gift. In response to Mr Iban's letter, he said: "Could I reassure you the Woodland Trust has procedures to rigorously check out all high value donations against key criteria pertaining to legality and Trust policy."

Mr Francis said the Trust always investigated corporate donors to safeguard its reputation. It found nothing untoward about Ching Hai, neither did the group request publicity.

Mr Iban is undeterred. He alleged Ching Hai had not only broken up his marriage, it had extracted "very large sums of money" from his family which was now being used to finance projects like Cym Mynach.

Followers say much of the money Ching Hai makes is used for helping the poor, refugees and victims of environmental disasters.

Spokesman Zamir Elahi said: "Membership is entirely voluntary - there is no joining fee and no donations are expected. People join through free will.

"The Supreme Master makes money by selling products, like any other businesperson, and redistributes everything to good causes around the world."

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