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With the death toll rising, Catholic aid agencies assisting victims of Indonesian quake and tsunami

Disaster zone: People displaced by an earthquake and tsunami wait to be evacuated from Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island.
Photo: CNS

CATHOLIC aid agencies are part of the international relief efforts for survivors in remote parts of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi in the aftermath of a 7.5-magnitude earthquake and devastating tsunami.

Tens of thousands of people fled their homes when an earthquake struck Central Sulawesi province, and soon after a tsunami engulfed the main centres of Palu and Donggala and other coastal towns and villages on September 28.

Brisbane’s Indonesian Catholic community dedicated Sunday prayers to the victims and their families, and started a relief fund as the enormity of the disaster unfolded.

After four days, the death toll rose to more than a thousand and continued to climb as rescue teams reached isolated settlements and started digging for signs of life beneath crushed rubble, and mud and debris from landslides.

As strong aftershocks continued to hit the largest city, Palu, Indonesia’s Catholic Church swung into action to support victims.

Caritas Australia’s partner Caritas Indonesia and Catholic Relief Services were quickly on the ground.

“We are concerned that emergency teams have not yet reached all impacted areas, where there are no communications, and so the extent of the damage and lives lost isn’t yet known,” Caritas Australia senior programs co-ordinator for emergencies Richard Forsythe said.

“… We want to express our solidarity with the people of Indonesia; they are in our thoughts and prayers at this difficult time.”

The biggest immediate concern was the lack of clean drinking water and medicines; and the risk of disease caused by decomposing bodies.

Volunteers in Palu, prepared a mass grave and buried hundreds of corpses.

In the confusion of the early aid efforts, a military supply plane was unable to land in Palu because desperate residents overran the airport.

South of Palu a recovery team discovered the bodies of 34 children attending a Bible camp at a church, a spokeswoman for the Indonesian Red Cross, Aulia Arriani, said.

Without access to heavy machinery, there was no immediate way to lift concrete rubble and dig through the carnage.

Brisbane’s Indonesian Catholic community chaplain Capuchin Fr Martinus Situmorang dedicated prayers at St Ita’s Church, Dutton Park, to “the souls of victims, for the families and the thousands of injured”.

“We also prayed for the (Indonesian) government organising rescue and support efforts,” Fr Situmorang said.

He called on Brisbane’s 470-strong Indonesian Catholic community to support relief fundraising efforts.

Pope Francis also drew international attention to the disaster.

“I pray for the deceased – unfortunately, (they are) numerous – for the wounded, for all those that have lost their homes and work,” the Pope said, after reciting the Angelus with members of the faithful at St Peter’s Square on September 30.

“May the Lord console them and support the efforts of all those that are involved in bringing help.”

Fr Situmorang said he had an “emotional connection” with Palu, having last visited his uncle there in 2011.

He had made brief email connection with his uncle to confirm his safety until the Internet failed.

Chairman of the Socio-Economic Commission of Manado Diocese in North Sulawesi Fr Joy Derry Clement said some parishes in the area had been heavily hit.

At least two parish churches have been partially destroyed.

“Their walls are cracked. In some cases, heavy steel pillars have become detached from their brackets,” Fr Clement said, adding a number of priests suffered minor injuries due to the quake.

At least 500 priests, nuns, seminarians and lay Catholics have been forced to relocate to the compound of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Palu.

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