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In Yolanda-hit areas, grieving survivors take solace in Sunday prayer

GUIUAN — Grieving survivors of a monster typhoon in the mainly Catholic Philippines gathered in shattered churches on Sunday, listening to soothing sermons, asking questions of God and feeling a ray of hope.

Nine days after some of the strongest winds ever recorded and tsunami-like waves destroyed dozens of coastal towns and killed thousands of people, the services offered a moment to escape the grinding battle to survive in the wastelands.

Aid has been slow reaching the millions of affected people, but an enormous international relief operation picked up momentum over the weekend, bringing food, water and medical supplies and airlifting basic necessities to isolated communities.

About 300 people in Guiuan, the first town to be hit by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), attended Sunday mass in the courtyard of the ruined 400-year-old Immaculate Conception church.

"I wish to thank the Lord. We asked for his help for all the people who survived this typhoon to be able to eat and continue a life that is hopefully more blissful," Belen Curila, an elegantly dressed 71-year-old, told AFP.

"The Lord has strengthened our faith and made us stronger in order for us to survive and start off all over again."

Delivering the homily, Father Arturo Cablao commended the community's strength of spirit, as parishioners—some of them silently weeping—stood among twisted roofing sheets, glass shards and mud.

About 80 percent of the Philippines' 100 million people are Catholic, a legacy of Spanish colonial rule, and their steadfast faith was on display throughout the central islands that were devastated by Yolanda.

In Tacloban, one of the hardest-hit cities, hundreds of devotees sat on flood-soaked pews at the 124-year-old Santo Nino church, which had its roof ripped off by Yolanda's ferocious winds.

Violeta Simbulan, 63, said the priest's sermon promising that God would always be there offered her comfort while trying to cope with losing two cousins and an aunt in the disaster.

"Yes, I was reassured. As long as I have faith and constantly pray to God," Simbulan said.

Relief effort builds

As the morning masses were held, the international relief effort continued to build, consolidating its initially tenuous grip on the catastrophic situation.

"The challenge is to ensure that we get all the supplies that are arriving to as many people as possible. The arrival was pretty slow at first but it is picking up extremely well," World Food Program emergency coordinator Samir Wanmali told AFP at Tacloban airport.

Thousands of US soldiers aboard the USS George Washington aircraft carrier have been leading the mission since arriving on Thursday, and they were steadily reaching more remote communities aboard helicopters while their planes delivered supplies to small airstrips.

A British warship, the HMS Daring, was also due to arrive in the central Philippines' on Sunday after making its way from Singapore.

It will be followed by the helicopter carrier HMS Illustrious, the largest ship in the British navy.

Japan has also confirmed it will send almost 1,200 troops to join relief efforts along with three warships, 10 planes and six helicopters—its military's single largest aid deployment.

The Philippine government said Sunday that 3,681 were confirmed dead in the disaster, with another 1,186 people missing.

However the United Nations and other relief workers say the death toll will inevitably climb much higher over the coming months as a full assessment is made of the 600-kilometer (380-mile) stretch of islands hit by Yolanda.

If the worst fears are realized, Yolanda could be the country's deadliest natural disaster, surpassing the 1976 Moro Gulf tsunami that killed between 5,000 and 8,000 people on the southern island of Mindanao.

Although many devotees in the Philippines were seeking comfort in God on Sunday, for some the scale of the disaster and personal tragedy were proving a severe test of their faith.

Father Edwin Bacaltos, the parish president at the Redemptorist Church in Tacloban, told AFP that people had repeatedly asked him why the catastrophe had occurred.

"I didn't give them any theological answer. I just listened and kept quiet. It's not the time to rationalize," he said.

Bacaltos said he also had struggled, breaking down while trying to say mass on the first Sunday after the disaster.

"I had difficulty. I saw so many people killed. They were just there," he said, pointing to bodies that had been strewn along the nearby seaside.

"But this is not God's punishment. I have told them that God still loves us. Because God is a compassionate God. He will not abandon us." — Agence France-Presse