Quake Survivors Make Time for Religion in Pakistan

Nearly a week after the South Asian quake, residents of one remote village in northern Pakistan went to Friday prayers in an open field because the quake destroyed the village mosque.

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The search-and-rescue operation is over in south Asia. There are still people buried in the rubble from last weekend's earthquake, but Jan Egeland, the United Nations emergency relief coordinator, put it this way. `It's a cruel reality,' he said, `but after a week very few people survive.' The estimated death toll is more than 35,000. Most died in Pakistan, and for Muslims in that country, Friday prayers took on special significance. NPR's Philip Reeves reports on one cleric and his congregation.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Today Mullah Abdul Hayee's congregation had to pray in a field. The earthquake bit a chunk out of the front of his mosque and brought down two of his minarets. The cleric's followers turned up all the same. They walked in from Battal, a town mourning the loss of scores of its high school children and hundreds of residents. In twos and threes they wandered down the hillsides, weaving through the terraced maize fields and poplar groves from places where the destruction's even worse. They spread out their mats, took off their shoes and sat down in the field in front of the mosque completely covering the large, fresh, white H painted on the grass by the Pakistani military a few days ago. These days the mosque's grounds double as a helipad, but today the place was owned by several thousand bearded men in robes and turbans and skullcaps, farming folk whose faces nature had already prematurely aged, even before she struck so violently nearly a week ago. They came to hear their cleric explain the incomprehensible, to make some sense out of the catastrophe that's visited Pakistan with such devastating effect in the mountains of their own North West Frontier province. Mullah Abdul Hayee sat before them on a wooden chair.

Mullah ABDUL HAYEE: (Singing in foreign language)

REEVES: As he began to sing from beneath his large white beard, the ground shook and wobbled. Yet another aftershock was rolling through the hills.

For the last six days many Pakistani victims of this earthquake have been bottling up their misery. They walk up to foreign journalists and relate events so horrible that it's impossible for an outsider to imagine what it's like to endure them or how they've done so without losing their minds. They complain vociferously about the slow arrival of aid, about the Pakistani military's chaotic handling of the relief operations, but you see little of the true turmoil inside.

There was the university English lecturer from Muzaffarabad who described how he walked into his classroom to give his first lecture of the day. As his students stood up, the ceiling came down, killing them all. There was the shopkeeper who spoke of how he had lost his two infant children and his wife as if he was describing how his car had broken down, even though it was clear from his eyes that he was tortured by grief. There are countless others. Today, nearly one week on, in a valley tucked in a crease in the Himalayan foothills, people let their feelings out.

(Soundbite of religious service)

Mullah HAYEE: (Foreign language spoken)

Group of People: (In unison) (Foreign language spoken)

Mullah HAYEE: (Foreign language spoken)

Group of People: (In unison) (Foreign language spoken)

Mullah HAYEE: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Mullah Abdul Hayee spoke of many things. He prayed for an end to the aftershocks and to the rain that this week swept through the mountains, stalling rescue efforts. He appealed for people to help one another and not to take relief supplies they don't need. As he spoke, his congregation could hear the distant shouts of a crowd on an opposite hillside frantically jostling over supplies from a newly arrived aid truck. People, said the mullah, shouldn't chase after aid trucks like dogs or fight with one another over food.

As for the quake itself, the congregation got the explanation they came for. The earthquake, said the cleric, was punishment from Allah for their sins. The men listened and they prayed. Then they quietly walked away back towards the wreckage. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad.

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