Devotees wept after a deadly earthquake Tuesday rocked the birthplace of Catholicism in the Philippines, badly damaging the country's oldest church and leaving other historic places of worship in ruins.

Ten churches, some of which have crucial links to the earliest moments of the Spanish colonial and Catholic conquest in the 1500s, were damaged as the 7.1-magnitude quake struck the central islands of Cebu and Bohol.

"It is like part of the body of our country has been destroyed," Michael Charleston "Xiao" Chua, a history lecturer at De La Salle University in Manila, told AFP.

He said the damage was particularly painful because the Philippines had already lost so many of its cultural treasures to war, typhoons, earthquakes and poverty-driven neglect.

In Cebu, shocked devotees said prayers as they gathered in front of the Basilica Minore de Santo Nino (Basilica of the Child Jesus), the oldest church in the Philippines and home to one of the country's most important religious icons.

The limestone bell tower of the church, the latest version of which was built in 1735, was destroyed in the quake.

"I wanted to seek sanctuary here but it turns out the church was damaged," Fraulein Muntag, 32, a mother of two, told AFP as she wept and prayed the rosary at the site.

Vigil at damaged home of Catholicism

Muntag was among 100 people who had gathered amid aftershocks around the damaged belfry in the late afternoon, with candles lit in vigil.

Cebu is regarded as the birthplace of Catholicism in the Philippines because it was there that Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, sailing for Spain, arrived in 1521.

He converted a friendly local chief and his wife to Catholicism, making them the first Christian Filipinos. To mark their conversion, he gave them a statue of the infant Jesus.

The statue is kept in the Basilica and the people of Cebu, whose patron saint is the infant Jesus, continue to venerate the icon.

The Spaniards went on to rule the Philippines until the late 1800s, and the country became majority Catholic over that time.

The Philippines has since remained the Church's most important outpost in Asia, with Catholics making up nearly 80 percent of the country's 100 million people.

Another two popular churches in Cebu, built in 1860 and 1909, were damaged on Tuesday.

On neighbouring Bohol island, seven churches dating back centuries and also holding huge importance for Catholics were in tatters.

The ceiling of the Our Lady of the Assumption church, built in the 1800s and reputed to have a well which gives miraculous water, was caved in.

The facade and bell tower of the Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, which dates back to the 1700s, had crumbled.

It was built from stones of coral, quarried from the sea and reputedly plastered together using the white of a million eggs, according to historical records.

And the 17th-Century San Pedro church, known for its ornately painted ceiling, was entirely caved in, as if a giant fist had punched it from above.

The quake killed at least 93 people, according to authorities. However there were no reports of casualties inside the churches as they were mostly empty when the tremor hit in the morning of a public holiday.

The National Commission on Culture and the Arts issued a statement declaring they would "rescue and later, rehabilitate, damaged heritage structures," particularly the churches.

"(But) the psychological and emotional damage is very substantial. It seems to be the more difficult thing to repair," Maris Diokno, a commission member and head of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, told AFP.

Chua also noted that while the structures might be restored, the beautiful frescoes, murals and decorations that once covered many of the church walls and ceilings were gone forever, Chua said.

"What is truly lost are the paintings. The paintings can never be recovered," he said.

 

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