Evacuees pray for safety at Sunday mass amid Philippine volcano threat

TAGAYTAY CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – Hundreds of people who have fled their homes near a restive volcano on the Philippines’ main island Luzon attended a Catholic mass at a temporary shelter on Sunday, praying for safety amid fears of a violent eruption.

Some residents danced and brought wooden replicas of the Infant Jesus, locally known as “Santo Nino”, to celebrate the feast of the Holy Child. Many worshippers in Asia’s biggest Catholic nation believe the statues can grant miracles.

“We prayed that we can rise up, put a stop to this calamity to allow us to return back to our homes,” said 44-year-old evacuee Annie Villanueva. “A lot of families like us want to be together in our own homes and stand up.”

More than 70,000 people have been evacuated since the Taal, one of the Philippines’ most active volcanoes, began spewing clouds of ash, steam and gas on Jan. 12.

The volcano alert level remains at 4, just a notch below the highest, which means that “hazardous explosive eruption is possible within hours to days”.

“We feel afraid, especially for our families because we don’t know our fate, if we will be safe,” Villanueva said.

Nearly 800 volcanic earthquakes were recorded overnight within the danger zone, indicating “intense seismic activity (that) likely signifies continuous magmatic intrusion beneath”, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) said in an advisory.

High-risk areas within a 14-km (9-mile) radius of the volcano’s main crater should remain strictly off-limits to people, Maria Antonia Bornas, chief science research specialist at Phivolcs, told reporters.

“We continue to record earthquakes, and that is why we can’t relax,” she said.

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