A spiritual group whose "living god" founder has been accused of sexually abusing young boys has become an accredited partner of the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme.
On Friday night pressure was mounting on the charity to break its links with the group whose followers are devoted to the preachings of 79-year-old holy man, Sai Baba.
About 200 young people will fly to India in two weeks' time on a humanitarian pilgrimage run by Sai Youth UK, a division of the Sri Sathya Sai Organization. The teenagers and young men earn their Duke of Edinburgh awards for humanitarian work, chiefly distributing medical aid.
The trip coincides with Sai Baba's 80th birthday and has been arranged, organizers say, after he gave a divine commandment for the UK's Sai youth movement to visit him for the occasion.
For decades male former devotees have alleged that the guru molested them during so-called "interviews." During the last youth pilgrimage, in 2004, young people were granted group interviews with the guru after administering medical aid to villages surrounding Sai Baba's ashram in Puttaparthi, Andhra Pradesh, although there was no evidence of abuse.
Large numbers of young men have traveled from across the world to study alongside and meet the guru. His supporters say their encounter was spiritually enriching. Others, including participants in a BBC program, The Secret Swami, two years ago, accuse him of abuse, claiming he massaged their testicles with oil and coerced them into oral sex.
Sai Baba has never been charged over the sex abuse allegations. However, the US State Department issued a travel warning after reports of "inappropriate sexual behavior by a prominent local religious leader" which, officials later confirmed was a reference to Sai Baba.
"It is appallingly naive for the award scheme to involve young people and the royal family with an organization whose leader is accused of pedophilia," said Tom Sackville, a former Home Office minister and chairman of Fair, a cult-watching and victim support group.
"Parents who plan to send their children on this month's pilgrimage ... should be aware of the danger their children are being exposed to," he said.
But Peter Westgarth, chief executive of the charity, on Friday faced down calls to terminate his organization's relationship with the Sai organization.
"This is not the only religion accused of pedophilia. Young people who are participating on these trips are doing so because they choose to," he said. "The awards accredit the good work they do for poor people in India. We make no judgment about their religion. We would no sooner intervene here than we would the Church Lads' and Girls' Brigade."
Member of Parliament Michael Gove, a Conservative, said he would write to the charity asking it to consider a stricter monitoring of the groups that they work with.
"As a society we need a more determined effort to identify and expose those religious cults and extremists that pose a direct threat to people, so that they do not enjoy patronage that should be directed elsewhere," he said.
Shitu Chudasama, Sai's UK national youth coordinator, defended the trip, saying it was primarily a humanitarian mission to help impoverished people.
He said sex abuse claims were "totally unfounded."
Sai Organization's UK branch has also came into contact with royals through the awards, something Buckingham Palace was made aware of in September.
In correspondence seen by the Guardian, Brigadier Sir Miles Hunt-Davis, Prince Philip's private secretary, wrote: "[We] are very keen to get this sorted out properly and finally."
* Saytha Sai Baba has an estimated 30 million followers. The Sai Organization claims to have more than 1,200 Saytha Sai Baba Centers in more than 100 countries.
* He gained a following in his teens when he claimed to have divine powers and, later, said he was an incarnation of God.
* His most famous mantra is "Love All, Serve All."
Source: The Guardian
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