Christchurch holds prayers for quake victims

A building that housed news station CTV, a nursing school and a language school suffered severe damage in New Zealand's 6.3 magnitude quake. Friends and families waited as rescue efforts, at first hopeful, came to a halt.
The Associated Press
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 12:56 AM

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand -- Residents held open-air prayers for the dead and missing Sunday on the lawns of churches cracked and shattered in New Zealand's earthquake while teams continued their search through debris of one of the country's worst disasters.

"As our citizens make their way to church this Sunday they will be joined in prayer by millions around the world," said Mayor Bob Parker of the devastated city of Christchurch. "For now we are truly comforted by the thoughts and prayers of so many."

The official death toll rose Sunday to 146 and was expected to rise further, Police Superintendent Dave Cliff said. Prime Minister John Key has said the quake, which decimated the city's downtown, may be the country's "single-most tragic" disaster.

When the quake ripped through the city last Tuesday, the city's churches were among the hardest-hit buildings. Among them was the iconic Christchurch Cathedral, at the heart of the city, which suffered massive damage, its bell tower in ruins and 22 people potentially lying dead inside.

Still, many residents of the largely Christian city found a way to hold Mass on Sunday.

Parishioners set up rows of chairs in the sunlight and under the shade of trees on the lawn of St. Barnabas, an 86-year-old Anglican church where the quake cracked stone walls, shattered some stain glass windows and left the tower sinking. Wails of passing police cars and the roar of a military chopper overhead occasionally interrupted the sermon.

Rev. Philip Robinson later tried to rally a somber crowd.

"This is not called Christchurch for nothing," he said, drawing smiles from a few. "We will rise again."

After the service, people gathered by a table on the lawn to have coffee, scones and banana bread, and to comfort those still struggling. Megan Blakie, 45, stood in the crowd, eyes brimming with tears.

"I just am struggling with where's God in all of this?" she said. "It's not shattered my faith, but it's hard to keep going."

Outdoor services also were held at other churches and at a library, where attendees arrived on bicycle or on foot and sat in folding chairs. Church leaders had canceled a larger, multi-denominational service in a park for fear of clogging road access for emergency services.

Members of New Zealand's indigenous Maori community held a tradition ceremony at the ruined cathedral to bless spirits of the dead believed buried under the rubble there.

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