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INDONESIA-PARISH Jan-18-2005 (720 words) With photos to come. xxxi

Italian Franciscan says he fears Banda Aceh parish will never recover

By Stephen Steele
Catholic News Service

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (CNS) -- When Franciscan Father Ferdinando Seferi celebrated a mid-January Mass in his shattered parish in Banda Aceh, only six parishioners were among the 30 people who attended the service.

Twenty-five members of the parish were killed in the magnitude 9 earthquake and subsequent tsunamis that claimed the lives of about 166,000 Indonesians. The rest of the 350 parishioners fled to other parts of Aceh province or to the Indonesian capital of Jakarta for fear that recurring tremors would lead to a more powerful earthquake and flooding.

Sacred Heart Parish -- 75 percent Indonesian-Chinese and 25 percent Batak, an indigenous tribe -- was established in 1926 by Dutch missionaries and is the only Catholic parish in Aceh province. Father Seferi, an Italian, said he fears that his parish will never recover from the tsunamis' devastation.

"My ultimate sorrow is that my parish has been dismantled," he told Catholic News Service Jan. 18.

Only two bodies of missing parishioners have been located and received a Catholic burial, he said. In the weeks following the tsunamis, survivors asked Father Seferi to bless the spots where their loved ones disappeared.

"We have suffered so much, and our suffering is compounded because we cannot find their bodies," he said.

He said he doubts the Batak will return to Banda Aceh and instead will choose to return to their original villages. He said the Indonesian-Chinese may decide to remain in Medan, provincial capital of nearby North Sumatra province, or Jakarta; either way, the already small parish will lose a substantial number of members.

"As long as the memory of their apocalypse is on their mind, they will not return," he said.

Father Seferi said the parish will use money from the international aid network Caritas to rebuild the homes for parishioners "wherever they prefer."

"But we cannot think of rebuilding, because right now they need medicine, they need food," he said.

Despite the fact that Aceh is an overwhelmingly fundamentalist Muslim province, Father Seferi spent the early part of the day blessing corpses dragged from the city's debris.

"I bless all the dead because there is only one paradise for both Christians and Muslims," he said.

Sacred Heart, located along the Alur Naga River, sustained extensive damage; the water level rose more than 26 feet above church walls. The parish was spared a massive number of casualties because Father Seferi was celebrating Mass Dec. 26 in Meulaboh, on Aceh's northwest coast. Had Mass been celebrated in Banda Aceh Dec. 26, the entire parish could have been wiped out, the priest said.

Father Seferi was buying food for a sick parishioner in Meulaboh when the earthquake struck.

"I was compelled to fall to my knees, grab the earth and praise the awesome power of God," he said.

The quake lasted for about five minutes. About a minute or two after the earthquake ended, buildings in Meulaboh began collapsing one by one, he said.

Shortly after the quake, the town's residents emerged on the streets smiling, believing their few moments of terror had ended.

"It was then that we forgot what they taught us in school -- that after an earthquake along the coast, a tsunami will follow," he said.

The giant wave reached 50 feet in Meulaboh, destroying the city and killing thousands, he said. Father Seferi survived by escaping to the second floor of a mosque.

The priest, clearly traumatized by the experience, said he blames himself for not preventing a loss of life in Meulaboh.

"This is the great sin of my life for which I need to repent. For if I had not fallen to my knees to praise the Lord, I could have warned more people; if I had said 'save yourself,' so many people may not have died," he said.

U.S. Camillian Father Scott Binet of Milwaukee, Wis., a medical doctor who arrived in Indonesia in early January, said he would encourage Father Seferi to take a leave of absence from the parish.

"He knows he's struggling and I think he's fighting it. But this experience has taken a terrible toll on him. The decision is up to him, but I think he would benefit to leave Banda Aceh for a while," he said.


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