03/25/2005, 00.00

In Phuket, the Passion of Christ can be seen in the eyes of people

Catholic priest relates how Easter is being celebrated on the tsunami-stricken island. The West has forgotten what happened but locals still know how to smile. Tourism is in crisis and reconstruction only concerns big hotels. Easter mass will be followed by an inter-faith meal for Buddhists and Christians.

Patong (AsiaNews) – In Phuket, a resort paradise for rich Westerners, the "Passion of Christ can be seen in the eyes of people", this year. "You have abandoned us," bemoans Fr Giuseppe Ramondetta, a priest in Patong, a village on Phuket Island, one of the worse tsunami-hit areas. "There are no tourists this Easter and without tourism people here have nothing to live on".

Member of the Order of Friar Servants of Mary, Father Ramondetta has been in Thailand for the past 16 years. He heads the small local Catholic community in Patong, 15 kilometres from the city of Phuket. His Sacred Heart and Immaculate Chapel, the only Catholic place of worship in the area, was flooded by the tsunami on December 26. During the event he saw friends and parishioners die.

Speaking to AsiaNews, he described how desolate Easter celebrations are this year, but also how strong families are in coping with the tragedy.

"My aide and I were the only ones at Holy Thursday services," he said. "Last year we were at least 30, tourists included". And because the local economy is based on tourism, the December 26 tragedy has created dangerous levels of unemployment. "There have been hold-ups in stores and jewellery shops; something that never happened before," he said.

The clergyman remains doubtful that the aid promised for the second phase of reconstruction will ever materialise. "So far," he said, "I only see the big hotels being rebuilt. Billboards announce that 'the hotel will be better and more beautiful than before', but people are still sleeping in the open on blankets and under plastic sheets."

Never the less, Patong is not only a place of destruction. After the storm, the sun shall shine, the 75-year-old priest believes. Paradoxically, his confidence comes from the people who should be the least confident, the Thais themselves.

"However hungry or downtrodden they may be, they are always ready to give and share. They possess a great serenity".

According to Father Ramondetta, light at the end of the tunnel will come only in November "when the tourist season begins". In the meantime, he urges tourists to come back to Thailand. "This is the greatest help you can bring to this people," he said.

He also calls on people to "open their eyes" and see that preparing for Easter also means being closer to the poorest of the poor. "Only in doing this can one find the joy that the world cannot give!"

Even though the number of tourists attending local churches is down, Thai Catholics will still celebrate the occasion with the same eagerness. But because "many of members of our community lost their lives in the seaquake, we still pray for them," he explained.

During Lent Catholics in Patong—about 80 strong, counting locals and foreigners—celebrated the Way of the Cross every Sunday before mass rather than on Fridays.

"Here, young people are very active," Father Ramondetta said. "I have four aides whose age ranges from 20 to 25. Yesterday they prepared the Sepulchre as if it was their celebration".

On Easter Sunday, he will celebrate two masses: in Italian in the morning and in Thai in the evening. "A meal will follow the first mass and we expect many Buddhists to participate. It is a feast for the local community," he said.

Today "such initiatives are particularly meaningful because they reflect on a small scale the great inter-faith solidarity that the tsunami has generated in this country". (MA)


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