PEMBA, Mozambique — Next to a marble pulpit inside a Catholic church, a young Muslim girl chases around with other children.
The church has become a home for her and nearly 1,000 others from different faiths as they wait out the aftermath of Mozambique’s latest devastating cyclone.
Situated in the heart of this predominantly Muslim but diverse city ravaged by Cyclone Kenneth, the Maria Auxiliadora parish houses those displaced by the storm in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s northernmost province.
“We don’t ask about people’s religions, human life is all we value,” Father Ricardo Filipe Rosa Marques, the 41-year-old priest in charge, told The Associated Press.
The government has said 41 people have died after the cyclone made landfall on Thursday, and the humanitarian situation in Pemba and other areas is dire. More than 22 inches of rain have fallen in Pemba since Kenneth arrived just six weeks after Cyclone Idai tore into central Mozambique.
This is the first time two cyclones have struck the country in a single season, and Kenneth was the first cyclone recorded so far north in Mozambique in the era of satellite imaging.
The danger is not over. More rain was expected and rivers were expected to reach flood stage by Thursday, the United Nations humanitarian office has said, citing a U.K. aid analysis. It is the end of the rainy season and rivers already were running high.
Shelter is a top priority for most cyclone survivors and this is what the church is providing, promoting itself as a safe space even before the storm.
In a region where little-known Islamic militants have reportedly killed dozens of people in recent months, a certain amount of tension might be expected. But for some, what matters most is shelter.
“I had never been in a church before … but as long as I am safe I don’t mind,” said Aamilah Felciano, who is Muslim. “It doesn’t mean I have abandoned my faith, I am just saving my life.”
The church has suspended Mass and other routine programs. There is no space or time for such activities, the priest said.
“There can be no better Mass than giving people shelter and hope. That is the church’s mission,” he said.
Women and children have taken up residence inside the main hall. The few belongings they could carry as they fled, mainly clothing and plastic buckets, are tucked close by.
Children climb over the pulpit and the priest’s chair, playing. In one corner a woman breastfeeds her baby. Church pews have been turned into washing lines. Outside, shielded from the pounding rains, girls and boys take turns stirring huge pots of rice and soup.
As nightfall approaches, people prepare reed mats or pieces of cloth. Some will sleep on the bare floor. Men sleep on the hall’s balcony.
More than 900 displaced people are sheltering here, while about 200 others are staying at church centers elsewhere in the city, according to Joao Paulo, an official with Caritas, a Catholic relief agency.
Some people are still arriving. But getting people to leave their homes was not easy at first.
“The difficulty was that a lot of people here are Muslims, some said they cannot stay in a Catholic church,” said the priest, Rosa Marques, adding: “Some refused and preferred to stay at their homes. My heart broke because these people chose to face death over safety.”
But there are few religious tensions among city residents, he said, and many of the people arriving at the church with food, medicine and other aid are Muslim. “It is not as difficult as in other areas,” he said.
As he spoke, the Muslim call to prayer blared from speakers at one of the numerous mosques nearby, and people left the church to pray.
Cyclone Kenneth is not the first calamity to bring people of different faiths together in the province. When the Islamic extremists intensified their attacks on local communities last year, Muslims and Christians organized joint prayer meetings and opened an inter-faith dialogue center, the priest said.
“People here have suffered a lot. They have been through (Portuguese) colonialism, civil war and the recent killings. They have been living with scars for years yet their love and sense of sharing is amazing,” he said.
“I am learning from them. The people here are teaching me how to be a true priest.”