For one Catholic parish in China, division and confusion as historic deal looms

FILE PHOTO: A Catholic faithful holds a rosary during a mass on Holy Thursday at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing, China March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

By James Pomfret

YINGTAN, China (Reuters) – Like many Chinese Catholics, Lin Jinqing was shocked when news trickled through to him of an impending deal between Beijing and the Vatican that would end a long dispute over control of the Church in China.

As a member of a so-called “underground” church – one that is not sanctioned by Beijing – in the southeastern province of Jiangxi, Lin and fellow parishioners have for years been attending clandestine Bible readings and services.

In recent years, as Chinese authorities cracked down on underground services as part of broader restrictions on religious groups, he has also started attending services at state-sanctioned churches in order to avoid trouble.

“The pressure on underground church members has been quite big,” said Lin, who lives in Yingtan, a gritty city of one million people in southeastern Jiangxi province.

Now, the deal between China and the Vatican is worrying him.

“Many of us don’t know what to think,” he said. He said that the underground churchgoers wanted more freedom to worship. “But at what cost?”

A senior Vatican source told Reuters last month that a framework accord was ready and could be signed in months. The expected deal would allow China to appoint bishops, in consultation with the Vatican, and eventually could lead to the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the two sides for the first time in seven decades.

Until now, China and the Vatican have not recognized most bishops named by each other. Underground Catholics like Lin have stayed loyal to Vatican-appointed bishops – and the Pope.

News of the impending deal has split communities of Catholics across China, according to some critics like Cardinal Joseph Zen in Hong Kong.

Some fear greater suppression should the Vatican cede greater control to Beijing, but others want to see rapprochement.

“We hope for an early establishment of ties. It will definitely bring advantageous policies, and greater openness to the Church,” said Father Pan Yinbao, a priest affiliated with the official Church in Yingtan, in an interview with Reuters. “There is a need for change. There is a need for adjustment.”

Lin’s apprehensions, meanwhile, are echoed in WeChat groups used by Catholics, and the few uncensored religious news sites still viewable in China like www.tianzhujiao.life – as is cautious criticism.

“Churchgoers stay hopeful on the Vatican-China deal, but no one wants to live in a bird cage or only fighting for a larger space in the bird cage,” read one post by a blogger named Priest Shanren. “People are born to be free.”

The Chinese Communist Party has long sought to control organized groups, including religious ones, whose devotees can only worship under the auspices of state-sanctioned bodies, like the Catholic Patriotic Association.

Of the 146 bishops now in China, about a third are affiliated with the underground church.

A source close to the Vatican based in Hong Kong said that there would be a tightening of religious freedoms following a restructuring of China’s religious affairs authority this year, to bring it directly under party, rather than state control.

A Chinese government statement explaining the move said it would help China “steadfastly persevere in the direction of Sinicizing our country’s religions”.

This week, Guo Xijin, a bishop in the southeastern province of Fujian was detained by authorities for refusing to officiate Easter services with an official bishop. Guo, who is reportedly one of two Chinese bishops the Vatican has asked to retire or accept demotion to make way for a Beijing-backed one, couldn’t be reached by Reuters for comment.

Some critics and Chinese Catholics say rapprochement between Beijing and the Vatican could drive an even deeper wedge between the faithful in China, and engender some bitterness toward the Vatican.

TORN LOYALTIES AND FACTIONS

Those divisions are evident in places like Jiangxi province, where there are factions even within the underground Church.

When the province’s then 92-year-old Vatican-appointed bishop, Thomas Zeng Jingmu, retired in 2012, one faction, led by a relative, split from another underground faction loyal to the Vatican’s appointed successor, Bishop John Peng Weizhao.

The faction loyal to Peng, which now has at least six priests leading underground Masses, is likely to remain opposed to any deal and lead to the erosion of the Vatican’s authority, according to a source with close ties to underground Catholics in Jiangxi’s three dioceses.

She said that some devout Catholics across China were prepared to cut ties with the Vatican over a deal. “If they’re abandoned by the Vatican they’ll pray to God themselves at home,” said the source who declined to be named given the sensitivity of the matter.

“The Vatican has done the calculations and they feel it doesn’t matter if they abandon the underground, because they are a relatively small group, and will sooner or later fade away.”

Peng, who was detained by authorities for six months in 2014, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s equivalent of a foreign minister, said at a conference on Chinese Catholicism in Rome, that while the faithful in China had experienced “great suffering” in the past, the country was seeking to regain a central position in the world and so efforts should be made to forge Catholicism with “Chinese forms”.

 

RELIGIOUS SPIN

While some dioceses in coastal Fujian and in inland Hebei have large clusters of underground Catholics, Jiangxi’s are less influential. Many in the area, including 62-year-old Liu Ande, have switched to the official Church.

“We are sons and daughters of God but for our country, we must listen to the leaders here,” Liu said after a Sunday Mass at the official Catholic church in Yingtan.

The church is a shabby building in need of paint wedged into a residential courtyard with several cracked windows, where 48 mostly elderly Catholics listened to a sermon by Father Pan.

After Mass, on the steps of the church, some of the tensions of the impending deal were laid bare.

Liu asked Pan to verify if the Vatican had asked another Bishop in southern China besides Guo, to step down.

“Is it true? We’ve heard it’s true? It should be true,” said Liu. “Everyone is opposed to this.”

But Pan, the official priest, now dressed in a blue fleece jacket after mass, disputed the standoff.

“Whether it’s true or not isn’t clear,” he told Liu, who began nodding. “There’s a lot of news on the internet.”

Another worshipper dressed in a pink coat, who would only give her surname as Li, said she would be praying for a better tomorrow.

“If you’ve done bad things, you must then try to do lots of good things,” she said. “There shouldn’t be tensions,” she added. “We are all just trying to save our own souls.”

(Additional reporting by Anita Li in Shanghai; Philip Pullella in Rome; Greg Torode, Venus Wu and Chermaine Lee in Hong Kong; Editing by Philip McClellan)

Landmine clearing near Jordan River baptism site begins before Easter

By Eli Berlzon

QASR AL-YAHUD, West Bank (Reuters) – On the western bank of the River Jordan, not far from the spot where Christians believe Jesus was baptized, experts have begun clearing thousands of mines from the ruins of eight churches and surrounding land deserted more than 50 years ago.

Once the anti-tank mines and other explosives are removed, the compounds containing a Roman Catholic church and seven Eastern Orthodox churches abandoned after the 1967 Middle East war can be re-opened, said HALO Trust, a Scottish-based charity organizing the endeavor together with Israel.

The mined area, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, is about a kilometer (half-mile) from Qasr al-Yahud, the baptism site which HALO said was visited by around 570,000 Christian pilgrims last year.

A team of Israeli, Palestinian and Georgian experts, using hand-held mine detectors and armored mechanical diggers, began clearing the church compounds and the surrounding desert shrubland shortly before the Christian Holy Week that precedes Easter.

A sign warning from land mines is seen on a fence near Qasr Al-Yahud, a traditional baptism site along the Jordan River, near Jericho in the occupied West Bank, March 29, 2018

A sign warning from land mines is seen on a fence near Qasr Al-Yahud, a traditional baptism site along the Jordan River, near Jericho in the occupied West Bank, March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Rusting barbed wire fences, with signs warning “Danger Mines!” in Hebrew, English and Arabic, run along a dusty road leading to the 100-hectare (27 acre) area. HALO says the land contains around 2,600 mines and an unknown number of other unexploded ordnance.

Some of the churches may be boobytrapped, the charity says.

In a safe zone at the riverside on Thursday, a family from Spain wearing white baptismal robes stepped into the water.

HALO has been raising funds for the project over several years and said in a statement it intends to complete work at the site by Christmas.

Israel’s Defence Ministry and its Israel National Mine Action Authority have contributed at least half the funding for the project, a ministry spokeswoman said.

HALO described the project as a rare example of multi-faith collaboration in the Middle East, involving Israel and the Palestinian Authority that administers limited self-rule in the West Bank, which welcomed the efforts.

The river area was once a war zone between Israel and Jordan. The two neighbors made peace in 1994 but it took many years before some mine clearing began.

Both claim that the site where John the Baptist and Jesus met is on their side of the biblical river. The Gospel of John refers to “Bethany beyond the Jordan” without further details.

In 2002, Jordan opened its site, showing remains of ancient churches and writings of pilgrims down the centuries to bolster its claim. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 2015.

A sapper belonging to the HALO Trust, an international landmine clearance charity, looks for old mines in an abandoned church property complex near Qasr Al-Yahud, a traditional baptism site along the Jordan River, near Jericho in the occupied West Bank, March 29, 2018.

A sapper belonging to the HALO Trust, an international landmine clearance charity, looks for old mines in an abandoned church property complex near Qasr Al-Yahud, a traditional baptism site along the Jordan River, near Jericho in the occupied West Bank, March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Israel opened the baptism area on the western bank of the river in 2011. It has a modern visitor center and stairs for pilgrims to descend into the muddy water.

HALO, which has cleared landmines all over the world and was once sponsored by the late Princess Diana, said on Thursday that three of their staff members were killed and two injured by the accidental detonation of an anti-tank mine in Nagorno Karabakh.

The group were in a vehicle conducting a minefield survey when the explosion occurred in the separatist region in Azerbaijan.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Pope says Mafiosi ‘carry death’, can’t call themselves Christian

Pope Francis leads the Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican, March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Max Rossi

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis on Wednesday told members of the Mafia in Italy, where many go to Church and worship openly, that they cannot call themselves Christians because they “carry death in their souls”.

Francis’ improvised words before tens of thousands of people at his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square was his strongest attack on organized crime in nearly four years.

“So we don’t have to go far, let’s think about what happens right here at home (Italy),” he said while speaking generally about “fake Christians” who are corrupt while pretending to be righteous.

“(What about) the so-called Christian Mafiosi,” he said. “They have nothing at all in them that is Christian. They call themselves Christians but they carry death in their souls and inflict it on others.”

Many members of organized crime groups in Italy, such as Sicily’s Cosa Nostra and Calabria’s ‘Ndrangheta, see themselves as part of a religious, cult-like group.

Particularly in smaller towns and cities in the south, they take part in Catholic sacraments, go to church and in some cases have also found complicity by some churchmen.

The town of Oppido Mamertina in the Calabria region made headlines in 2014 when locals carrying a statute of the Madonna in a traditional religious procession diverted its route to pass by the home of local mob boss who was infirm.

They paused before the boss’ house and tilted the statue slightly as if to kneel in a sign of respect toward the clan boss.

When Pope Francis visited the Calabria region the same year, he accused organized crime members of practising “the adoration of evil” and said Mafiosi excommunicate themselves from the Church by their actions.

At the audience in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday, Francis asked the faithful for prayers for Mafiosi, “so that the Lord touches their souls”.

In 1993 Pope John Paul sternly warned members of Sicily’s Cosa Nostra that they would “one day face the justice of God”. The crime group responded several months later with bomb attacks against several churches in Rome, including the Basilica of St. John’s, which is a pope’s church in his capacity as bishop of Rome.

In recent years, the Calabria-based ‘Ndrangheta has overtaken Sicily’s Cosa Nostra as the most feared and lucrative Italian crime group, making most of its money from drug trafficking. It has spread throughout the world.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Peter Graff)

Israeli troops kill Palestinian in West Bank clashes

An Israeli border policeman takes up position during clashes with Palestinian demonstrators at a protest against Trump's decision on Jerusalem, near Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian man during clashes in the occupied West Bank on Friday, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.

An Israeli military spokesman said the man had been about to throw a fire-bomb at the troops, who were responding to an immediate threat when they shot him. He added that the incident in the city of Hebron would be reviewed.

U.S.-led peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in 2014 and a new push by President Donald Trump’s administration to restart negotiations has shown little progress so far.

Tensions between the sides have risen since Trump declared on Dec. 6 that he recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Outraged Palestinian leaders said Washington could no longer take the lead in peace efforts but Israel has said the United States should remain peace-broker.

Trump’s announcement and the planned move in May of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – home to sites holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians – reversed decades of U.S. policy on the city. Its status is one of the biggest obstacles to reaching a peace agreement.

The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. Israel says the entire city is its indivisible, and eternal capital.

(Reporting by Ali Sawafta and Maayan Lubell; editing by David Stamp)

Turkey summons Dutch diplomat over Christian Armenian ‘genocide’ decision

A demonstrator holds a Turkish flag outside the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam where a crowd gathered to await the arrival of the Turkish Family Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, who decided to travel to Rotterdam by land after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu's flight was barred from landing by the Dutch government, in Rotterdam, Netherlands March 11, 2017. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey summoned the Dutch charge d’affaires on Friday to complain about the Netherlands parliament recognizing the massacre of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 as genocide, the Turkish foreign ministry said.

The parliamentary motion, which the Dutch government said would not become official policy, risks further worsening relations already strained over the Netherlands barring Turkish ministers from campaigning for a 2017 referendum that gave President Tayyip Erdogan more power.

A second motion called for a high-level Dutch government official to attend Armenia’s genocide remembrance day on April 24. In the past, the Dutch ambassador has attended.

Turkey accepts many Christian Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were killed in clashes with Ottoman forces during World War One, but contests the figures and denies the killings were systematically orchestrated and constitute a genocide.

Turkey’s foreign ministry said the Dutch motions were “baseless decisions”. Nearly a dozen other EU countries have passed similar resolutions.

Talks to repair relations between the two countries have broken down and the Netherlands recalled its ambassador on Feb. 5.

(Reporting by Tulay Karadeniz; Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by David Dolan and Robin Pomeroy)

Nigeria holds mass burial for 73 people killed in communal violence

People cry as a truck carries the coffins of people killed by the Fulani herdsmen, in Makurdi, Nigeria January 11, 2018.

By Alexis Akwagyiram

MAKURDI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Seventy-three people killed since the start of the year in communal violence between semi-nomadic herdsmen and farmers were buried in Nigeria on Thursday highlighting a bloody conflict over fertile land that is taking on political significance.

The mass burial took place in Makurdi, in the central state of Benue, where thousands of mourners took to the streets to watch the funeral procession. The killings occurred in remote parts of Benue, the state worst hit by clashes that have killed at least 83 people since Dec. 31.

Thousands of herdsmen mainly from the Fulani ethnic group have moved southwards in the last few years to flee spreading desertification in the north, putting pressure on dwindling fertile land amid rapid population growth.

The spike in violence has become increasingly political ahead of elections in February 2019 with critics of President Muhammadu Buhari, who is Fulani, accusing him of failing to get tough with the herdsmen.

Feelings ran high on the streets of Makurdi where thousands of people, many clad in black, waved wreaths as coffins on lorries passed by carrying the dead who were mainly from rural communities of Benue.

Some mourners held banners featuring pictures of victims and the words: “President act now: your people are killing us”.

“Something that is disturbing that I have heard about is linking those developments to the fact that a Fulani man is president and so, he is brooking such kind of evil acts,” said the president’s spokesman, Femi Adesina, this week, adding that such violence predated Buhari’s administration.

The herdsmen are mostly Muslim and the settled farmers are often Christian.

Despite the recent outbreaks of violence, Nigerians, split roughly equally between Christians and Muslims from around 250 different ethnic groups, mostly live peacefully together.

Clashes in the last few months have occurred in parts of the northwest and southeast, but the middle belt – where differing religious, ancestral and cultural differences frequently ignite conflict – has been worst hit in the latest flashpoints.

Peter Zion,31, a member of a state government task force set up to defend farms, was recuperating in hospital after being shot and cut across his face and torso by herdsmen wielding guns and cutlasses on Jan. 2 in the state’s Guma district.

“They killed some of my colleagues and the neighbors that were there all died,” said the father-of-two whose face had been cut and whose hands and legs were heavily bandaged. He described attackers going door-to-door shooting people.

The executive secretary of the Benue emergency agency, Emmanuel Shior, on Thursday said around 80,000 people who had fled herdsmen attacks were living in four camps located across the state.

Herdsmen traditionally roam freely across West Africa, entering and leaving Nigeria through porous borders with Benin, Niger and Cameroon. They have also accused Nigerian farmers of violent attacks in the last few years.

Improving security was a key promise in Buhari’s successful 2015 presidential election campaign. The 75-year-old has not yet said whether he will seek re-election next year.

“Security of life and property continues to be top of our agenda, in line with our election pledge and promises,” said Buhari in a tweet on Thursday, which linked to a list of ways in which the government has responded to the killings.

He bolstered the police presence in Benue on Monday and ordered the head of police to relocate to the state.

The violence is likely to further stretch security forces already contending with Boko Haram’s Islamist insurgency in the northeast and the threat of attacks on oil facilities in the southern Niger Delta of the type that in 2016 helped to push Africa’s largest economy into recession.

(Additional reoporting by Anamesere Igboeroteonwu in Onitsha and Felix Onuah in Abuja; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

For Iraqi Christians, a bittersweet first Christmas home after Islamic State

Iraqi Christians pray during a mass on Christmas eve at Church of Saint George in Teleskof, Iraq December 24, 2017.

By Raya Jalabi

TELESKOF, Iraq (Reuters) – Inside the newly renovated Church of Saint George in the Northern Iraqi town of Teleskof, Hayat Chamoun Daoud led children dressed as Santa Claus singing “Jingle Bells” in Aramaic.

Like every other resident of Teleskof, this was Daoud’s first Christmas back home in three years, since Islamic State militants overran her town and forcibly displaced its 12,000-strong Chaldean Christian community.

“It’s so special to be back in my church, the church where I got married, the church I raised my children in,” the school headmistress said, tears in her eyes.

Faced with a choice to convert, pay a tax or die, Daoud, like many other Christians in the Nineveh Plains, chose to flee. Most sought refuge in nearby towns and cities, but many sought permanent asylum abroad. Though the militants were only in Teleskof for a few days, residents only began returning home earlier this year.

On Sunday, they celebrated their first Christmas together again at the town’s main church, which was overflowing. Hundreds of congregants, dressed in their finest, poured in to pray and receive communion from Father Salar Bodagh, who later lit the traditional bonfire in the church’s courtyard, a symbol of renewal he said.

Iraqi Christian children wait for gifts during a mass at Church of Saint George in Teleskof, Iraq December 24, 2017.

Iraqi Christian children wait for gifts during a mass at Church of Saint George in Teleskof, Iraq December 24, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

‘JOY SOAKED IN TEARS’

Despite the obvious joys of being able to celebrate openly once again, it was a bittersweet Christmas for most across the Nineveh Plains, the epicenter of Iraq’s ancient Christian communities which can trace their history in the country back two millennia.

Though Iraq declared full victory over the militants just two weeks ago after a brutal three-year war, the damage done to Christian enclaves was extensive, and left many wondering whether they could overcome their recent history.

Islamic State ravaged Christian areas, looting and burning down homes and churches, stripping them of all valuable artifacts and smashing relics.

The damage in Qaraqosh, a town 15 km (10 miles) west of Mosul also known as Hamdaniya, was extensive, particularly to the town’s ancient churches.

At the Syrian Catholic Church of the Immaculate, congregants gathered for midnight Mass on Sunday surrounded by scorched and blackened walls, still tagged with Islamic State graffiti. They also sat on donated plastic chairs – the church has not yet been able to replace the wooden pews the militants used to fuel the massive fire which engulfed the church.

Most families will require tens of thousands of dollars to repair their homes and replace their stolen goods. But most say they can overcome the material damage, unlike the forced separation of their families.

Before the militant onslaught, Qaraqosh was the largest Christian settlement in Iraq, with a population of more than 50,000. But today, only a few hundred families have returned. Entire congregations have moved overseas, such as the Syriac Orthodox congregation of the Church of Mart Shmony.

On Saturday afternoon, Father Butros Kappa, the head of Qaraqosh’s Church of the Immaculate was trying hard to summon any sense of hope to deliver his congregation during Christmas Mass.

“We’ll have a Christmas Mass like in previous years, but this year, ours will be a joy soaked in tears, because all of our people have left Iraq,” said Father Kappa.

Holding Mass in the singed and upturned ruins of his church was therefore important, he said, “to remind everyone that despite the tragedies that have befallen us, we’re still here.”

A burned church of the Immaculate Conception by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Qaraqosh, south of Mosul, Iraq December 23, 2017. Picture taken December 23, 2017.

A burned church of the Immaculate Conception by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Qaraqosh, south of Mosul, Iraq December 23, 2017. Picture taken December 23, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

‘NO FUTURE FOR US’

In Teleskof, 30 km (20 miles) north of Mosul and itself one of the oldest continuing Christian communities in the world, some families were skipping Mass altogether upset at their forced dispersal.

“We usually celebrate with our entire family,” said Umm Rita, as she prepared the traditional Christmas Day dish of pacha (sheep’s head, trotters and stomach all slowly boiled) at her home. “But how can we be happy this year? Our brothers and sisters, even my own daughter, her husband and child I’ve never met have all moved away.”

Community leaders estimate more than 7,000 of Teleskof’s residents are now scattered across Iraq and it’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region, the United States, Australia, Germany, Lebanon and Jordan.

Amid ongoing tensions between the central government in Baghdad and Iraq’s Kurds after a referendum on Kurdish independence was held over Baghdad’s objections in September, Teleskof’s residents fear violence once again. “We just want to live in peace,” said Umm Rita. “We are more anxious now than when Islamic State was in our homes.”

“Our community has been gutted,” said Firas Abdelwahid, a 76-year-old former state oil employee, of the thousands who have sought permanent shelter overseas. Watching children play by the church bonfire, he felt melancholy.

“But what do we expect? The past is tragic, the present is desperate and well, there is no future for us Christians in Iraq.”

(Reporting by Raya Jalabi; Editing by Mary Milliken)

Vietnam braces for typhoon as Philippine toll rises to 230 dead

Vietnamese residents are seen at an evacuation center before Tempin storm hits the land in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam December 25, 2017.

By Mi Nguyen and Manuel Mogato

HANOI/MANILA (Reuters) – Authorities in Vietnam prepared to move a million people from low-lying areas along the south coast on Monday as a typhoon approached after it battered the Philippines with floods and landslides that killed more than 230 people.

Typhoon Tembin is expected to slam into Vietnam late on Monday after bringing misery to the predominantly Christian Philippines just before Christmas.

Vietnam’s disaster prevention committee said 74,000 people had been moved to safety from vulnerable areas, while authorities in 15 provinces and cities were prepared to move more than 1 million.

The government ordered that oil rigs and vessels be protected and it warned that about 62,000 fishing boats should not venture out to sea.

“Vietnam must ensure the safety of its oil rigs and vessels. If necessary, close the oil rigs and evacuate workers,” Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc was quoted as saying on a government website.

Schools were ordered to close in the southern commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City on Monday, a working day in Vietnam.

On Sunday, Tembin hit the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, parts of which are contested by several countries, including Vietnam and China.

No casualties were reported in outposts there.

Vietnam, like the Philippines, is regularly battered by typhoons that form over the warm waters of the Pacific and barrel westwards into land.

Tembin will be the 16th major storm to hit Vietnam this year. The storms and other disasters have left 390 people dead or missing, according to official figures.

SCORES MISSING

In the Philippines, rescue workers were still struggling to reach some remote areas hit by floods and landslides that Tembin’s downpours brought, as the death toll climbed to more than 230. Scores of people are missing.

The full extent of the devastation was only becoming clear as the most remote areas were being reached.

Health worker Arturo Simbajon said nearly the entire coastal village of Anungan on the Zamboanga peninsula of Mindanao island had been wiped out by a barrage of broken logs, boulders and mud that swept down a river and out to sea.

“Only the mosque was left standing,” Simbajon said.

“People were watching the rising sea but did not expect the water to come from behind them.”

Manuel Luis Ochotorena, head of regional disaster agency, said he expected the death toll to rise.

“Many areas in Zamboanga peninsula are still without power and communications, some towns are cut off due to collapsed bridges, floods and landslides,” he said.

Tens of thousands of people on Mindanao have been displaced by the storm, which struck late on Friday.

The Philippines is battered by about 20 typhoons a year and warnings are routinely issued.

But disaster officials said many villagers had ignored warnings this time to get out coastal areas and move away from riverbanks.

In 2013, super typhoon Haiyan killed nearly 8,000 people and left 200,000 families homeless in the central Philippines.

(This version of the story was refiled to fix spelling in paragraph two)

(Reporting by Mi Nguyen; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Robert Birsel)

Nazareth Christmas celebrations will be held as normal

Israeli Arabs perform a nativity scene for tourists in the northern town of Nazareth December 22, 2008.

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Nazareth, the Israeli Arab city where Jesus is thought to have been raised, will celebrate Christmas as usual, its mayor said, denying the festivities would be curtailed in protest at the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

On Wednesday, a city spokesman said there would be some cuts to the celebrations to protest against President Donald Trump’s decision on Jerusalem that angered Palestinians as well as U.S. allies in the Middle East and the rest of the world.

Mayor Ali Salam told Reuters on Saturday that three singers who had been due to perform would not appear. He gave no reason for their absence, but said that the celebrations would proceed as normal.

“I don’t know why people thought that there would be cuts to the celebrations. Everything, except for three singers who will not be coming, will be held as normal. We have already welcomed 60,000 people to the city today,” Salam said.

Nazareth, the largest Arab town in Israel with a population of 76,000 Muslims and Christians, is one of the Holy Land’s focal points of Christmas festivities which begin officially on Saturday evening.

Nazareth’s imposing Basilica of the Annunciation is built on a site that many Christian faithful believe was the childhood home of Jesus’ mother, Mary.

(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)