PALU, Indonesia (AP) — Christians dressed in their tidiest clothes flocked to Sunday sermons in the earthquake and tsunami damaged Indonesian city of Palu, hoping for answers to the double tragedy that inflicted deep trauma on their community.
Protestants, Catholics and Charismatics make up about 10 percent of the population of Palu, where neighborhoods and miles of coastline were obliterated by the Sept. 28 quake and tsunami.
At least 200 people including soldiers filled the grey pews of the Protestant Manunggal church in Palu for the second of three services planned Sunday.
They sang as a young girl in a black and white dress with a red bow danced in the aisle, prayed and listened to a 30-minute sermon from the priest, Lucky Malonda. A woman in the front pew wept.
Indonesia's disaster agency said on Saturday that the death toll had climbed to 1,649 with at least 265 people still missing, though it said that number could be higher. Bodies are still being recovered from neighborhoods where the force of the quake liquefied the earth and sucked houses into the ground.
Min Kapala, a 49-year-old teacher, said she came to the city of more than 25 churches from an outlying area because her usual house of worship was destroyed and liquefaction moved a different piece of ground to its location.
"I'm here at this particular church because my own church is no more; it's leveled, and on its location there's a corn plant," she said. "That was very strange to me."
Outside the church, Malonda said the intensity of the disaster had taken even scientists by surprise and called it the will of God. Two people from his congregation were missing, he said.
"This is for sure part of godly intervention, not outside the power of almighty God, that can't be predicted or planned for by anything," he said.
Malonda said religious leaders are discussing holding inter-faith prayers but nothing has been agreed yet.
Central Sulawesi, of which Palu is the capital, has a history of violent conflict between Muslims and Christians, though tensions have calmed in the past decade.
As searchers continued to dig through rubble Sunday, central Sulawesi governor Loki Djanggola said local officials were meeting religious groups and families of victims to seek their consent to turn neighborhoods wiped out by liquefaction into mass graves.
He said on local television that survivors in the outlying villages in Petobo, Balaroa and Jono Oge could be relocated and monuments be built in the areas, which now look like wastelands, to remember the victims interred there.
Hundreds of bodies are believed buried in deep mud in these areas, but officials have said it is not safe for heavy equipment to operate there and also they fear the risk of the spread of disease from decomposed bodies.
While grappling with immediate relief needs, the government is also mapping out plans to help more than 70,000 people, including tens of thousands of children, who have been displaced by the disasters to rebuild their lives.
Social welfare officials have set up nurseries in makeshift tents as stopgap to keep children safe and help them heal from the trauma. Local television showed children coloring in one such tent in Palu and staff using puppets to minister to affected kids.
Market vendors have resumed business and roadside restaurants were open in Palu but long lines of cars and motorcycles still snarled out of gas stations.
In the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, volunteers walked around thoroughfares empty of cars collecting donations for earthquake victims during the weekly car free morning in the city center.
Associated Press reporter Eileen Ng in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.