By KRISTEN GELINEAU
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.
Other Christchurch residents chose to spend their Sunday in more secular surroundings, such as the botanical gardens, where oak trees insulate the pathways from the noise of the city's rescue and recovery operations.
The Robb family, brothers Neville and Graeme and their wives Gael and Michelle, met in the gardens, as they do every Sunday, to walk their dogs.
"You feel guilty doing something so normal when there is so much suffering," Michelle Robb said. "But the dogs need walking."
Some 56 percent of New Zealanders have a Christian religious affiliation and nearly 35 percent profess no religion, while religious groups like Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are growing as immigrants arrive.
The multinational team of more than 600 rescuers scrabbling through wrecked buildings in the central city last pulled a survivor from the ruins at mid-afternoon Wednesday, making it four days without finding anyone alive.
Rescue coordinator Jim Stuart-Black said Sunday that rescuers were "still in active rescue mode" and continued "to look in every possible place for survivors," but that finding more survivors was increasingly unlikely.
"We are starting to move into the miracle stage of the operation," he said.
Cliff, the police superintendent, said the official death toll rose to 146 based on the number of bodies brought to a special morgue.
He said list of the missing was "over 200," and clarified Sunday that police assume that bodies already collected and awaiting identification will end up matching names on the missing list, leaving just "over 50 people unaccounted for." Only six bodies have been publicly identified.
New Zealand's deadliest disaster was a 1931 temblor that killed 256 people.
Engineers and planners said Saturday the city's decimated central area may be completely unusable for months to come and that up to a third of the buildings may need to be razed and rebuilt.
Key, the prime minister, said the government would announce an aid package Monday for an estimated 50,000 people who will be out of work for months due to the closure of downtown. He also called for two minutes of silence on Tuesday to remember both victims and the ordeal of the survivors.
Associated Press writers Steve McMorran in Christchurch, New Zealand, and Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand, contributed to this report.