Days after a 7.5-magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami leveled homes, businesses, mosques, and churches on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, Christians are reeling from the destruction as casualties climb into the thousands—which now include dozens of youth killed at a Bible camp.
Under the rubble of one church destroyed in a mudslide, the Indonesian Red Cross this week discovered the bodies of 34 kids who were attending Pusdiklat GPID Patmos “Jono Oge,” a church training center in Sigi, located outside the provincial capital of Palu.
Another 52 students remain missing from the camp, which regularly hosts youth for worship, teaching, and fellowship. Recovery efforts have been slower in hard-to-reach areas, which lack the equipment to move fallen concrete or dig through the carnage. A Red Cross spokeswoman said she expects the number of dead at Jono Oge to rise as the recovery continues.
The center is affiliated with Palu’s largest denomination, the Indonesian Protestant Church in Donggala (GPID), with around 40,000 members. Last week, Palu teens posted shots on Instagram from Jono Oge, sharing favorite Bible verses and posing in front of a banner reading “From Darkness to Light.”
The quake, tsunami, mudslide, and aftershock have left the Protestant minority in Central Sulawesi—about 17 percent of the 2.6 million-person, mostly Muslim province—scrambling for basic necessities to survive while body bags pile along the streets and the smell of death lingers in the air.
On Tuesday, the official death toll reached more than 1,300, with another 800 injured, and both figures are rising. An estimated 50,000 people are displaced in Palu.
Church leaders who made it through the disaster have rallied to offer relief efforts as they are able, but resources are limited.
GPID Eben Haezer in South Palu has opened a health center for injured victims, hosting a Christian doctor from City Harvest Church in Singapore.
Image: Courtesy of Santi White
A Salvation Army congregation in Palu set up a kitchen at its building to cook, pack, and deliver 100–300 meals a day, starting the day after the quake and tsunami hit the island. Volunteers don’t know how much longer they can feed desparate families without amenities like grocery stores, gas, and clean water, Santi White, a major with the Salvation Army, told CT.
The church in Palu needs support from near and far, according to White. Like fellow Christians in the capital city, several of their churches have been destroyed, and members of the congregation have lost everything. One family saw their two-story house sink completely into the ground.
Captain Ricosetta Mafella, a Christian and a pilot with Batik Air, watched the tsunami swirl toward the coast as he lifted off from Mutiara SIS Al-Jufrie Airport on Friday evening, the last flight to depart from Palu before the earthquake.
He shared his testimony online and again at a Jakarta church on Sunday, saying he was spurred by the Holy Spirit to take off a few minutes early. The air traffic controller on duty, Anthonius Gunawan Agung, has been hailed as a hero, jumping to his death from the control tower after Mafella’s flight was safely off the ground.
The pilot posted on Instagram:
“I felt something wrong on the runway during take off roll. [6:02 pm] earthquake 7.4-7.7 magnitude on scale rocks Palu. Thank God there is a voice (Holy Spirit i believe) telling me to depart early. I’m rushing the boarding process. Late by 30 second i would not have flown. Thank You Jesus.”
Remembering the 21-year-old air traffic controller, he wrote, “Wing of honor for Anthonius Gunawan Agung as my guardian angel at Palu. Rest peacefully my wing man. God be with you.”
Mafella spoke at Duta Injil BIP church in Jakarta this weekend, reflecting on Psalm 23 and how Palu—located at the mouth of a river in Central Sulawesi, between two mountain ranges—had also been nicknamed by some pilots as a “valley of death.”
Central Sulawesi is not as heavily Christian as North Sulawesi, where Protestants outnumbered Muslims 2-to-1 in the 2010 census, but it still has a significant Christian population of nearly a half-million believers. One Indonesia preacher wrote after the disaster that Palu “must be recovered, more advanced & blessed [by] God. What is lost is returned to God two-fold.”
Neighboring cities have seen sectarian conflict between Christians and Muslims over the years, which isn’t uncommon in Indonesia—even during disaster recovery. Following a 2004 tsunami that hit Aceh province, Muslim militants clashed with Christians and foreign aid workers trying to help.
Across Indonesia—home to the largest Muslim population in the world—believers continue to fear persecution by radical Islamists; last week in Sumatra, a trio of churches were forced to close, and suicide bombers attacked congregations in Surabaya back in the spring.
Relief efforts continue at locations like the Roa Roa Hotel, where about 50 guests were reported to be killed or trapped in rubble after the eight-story building collapsed. Just behind the hotel, the IFGF Palu church remains standing. Pastors from the church itself or its Jakarta-based denomination could not be reached by CT to confirm any loss or damage suffered among the congregation.
World Vision, which serves more than 5,000 sponsored children in Central Sulawesi province, set up feeding centers for children outside its office in Palu and has begun distributing relief supplies, even as its own staff of 70 suffers loss from the earthquake and tsunami.
Image: Courtesy of Santi White
White, with the Salvation Army, said the biggest needs are food, clothing, formula, diapers, and medicines. She is praying her team stays healthy enough to continue the relief work—and fears the spread of disease from bodies buried in open graves.
They are praying for favorable weather for all the families forced to sleep outside—and for God to spare them from future quakes.