PHOTO AT LEFT - President Arroyo answers the questions of Malacañang reporters during a press conference at the palace yesterday, the first working day of the year. She declared Jan. 7 as a national day of prayer for tsunami. – Photo by Willy Perez]

MANILA, January 4, 2005 (STAR) By Marichu Villanueva and Nikko Dizon  -  Amid reports that searchers had all but given up hope of finding more survivors and the confirmed death toll approached 150,000, President Arroyo yesterday declared Jan. 7 a "day of national prayer and mourning" for all tsunami victims.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), for its part, designated Jan. 9 as a special day of prayer for the tsunami victims and urged dioceses to have a special collection for the victims’ benefit.

The President is attending a summit on Thursday in Jakarta, Indonesia where regional leaders are to discuss coordination of the tsunami relief effort.

At least five Filipinos have been identified as among those who perished in the tsunamis that struck 11 countries from Southeast Asia to Africa on Dec. 26.

"I’d like to announce that we’re going to have a national day of prayer and mourning for those who perished in the tsunami on Friday," Mrs. Arroyo told a news conference yesterday.

More than half the known fatalities of the Dec. 26 disaster were from Sumatra island in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country.

The President promised to lead the national day of prayer, which comes a day after the one-day tsunami summit in Jakarta, Indonesia. She noted that the event coincides with the monthly First Friday Mass celebrated at Malacañang, the first for this year.

"Friday is a good day to have a prayer because the Muslims pray especially on Friday and also, it’s First Friday. So we will have that day of prayer and mourning," she said. "We will ask everybody to pray."

Mrs. Arroyo will join at Malacañang today a group of evangelical leaders who sought an audience with her for a prayer meeting.

She will also host the traditional New Year’s Day vin d’honneur for the diplomatic community.

At the Jakarta summit, the President said she would express anew the Filipinos’ grief over the tsunamis’ human toll. Among those hit were members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Myanmar.

The President said that in her "major address" on Friday, she will thank the international community again for the relief assistance the Philippines received after four consecutive typhoons caused landslides and flashfloods that devastated Luzon some weeks ago.

CBCP president and Davao Archbishop Fernando Capalla said their group’s "Permanent Council has decided that January 9, Sunday, the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, be a day for prayer for the victims of the tsunami that hit the Asian region."

The CBCP said the monetary contributions from dioceses all over the country will be coursed through Caritas Philippines and the CBCP’s National Secretariat for Social Justice and Peace (NSSJP) office, which will send the money to the dioceses in the countries affected by the catastrophe.

"Although we have been badly hit by recent calamities, we Filipinos can still share something," Capalla said.

CBCP secretary general Msgr. Hernando Coronel said the Catholic Church received a substantial donation from the Vatican and foreign governments for the victims of the typhoons that hit the country last December.

Coronel said he was not certain of the exact amount, noting that NSSJP would have the figures. However, he added that the contributions were substantial enough to significantly help in the continuing distribution of relief goods and the reconstruction of the victims’ homes and communities.

He said there will be an equitable distribution of the donations among affected dioceses.

"An assessment of the needs of the victims was done and the allocation of the donation would be according to their needs," Coronel said.

Tsunami meet

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said "the principal objective of the meeting is to coordinate all international relief efforts, and possibly to link all forecasting systems" of ASEAN member states.

"It is well known that some countries have stronger capabilities while others are deficient in their forecasting systems," he said. "Information-sharing is important."

The meeting was proposed by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Sumatra island in Indonesia triggered giant waves that swamped countries on the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26.

Lee earlier said the ASEAN meeting could possibly include China, Japan, South Korea, the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

"The holding of a tsunami summit in Jakarta is urgent and significant not only to step up the international human response to the multi-nation disaster, but to enhance regional disaster preparedness through a consolidated information-sharing and early warning system," Mrs. Arroyo said.

"Our own forecasting modernization plans must be aligned with the regional effort under the theme of all for one and one for all. We have seen and even experienced the price of being caught unaware of devastating calamities. Disaster mitigation must now be everyone’s and every nation’s business. Once more, each nation must act locally but think globally," the President said.

The Philippines operates its own early warning system, but Mrs. Arroyo said it needs to be updated and linked to similar systems in Hawaii, Japan and China.

The President said she will leave Manila Wednesday night for the tsunami meeting. She will be accompanied by Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Alberto Romulo, Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz as the head of the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC), Health Undersecretary Margarita Galon and Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology director Rene Solidum.

She assured Filipinos that the government will not touch the NDCC’s P500-million budget for this year to cover Philippine aid contributions to countries hit by tsunamis.

Mrs. Arroyo said that the government, working within its resources, sent eight Filipino forensic experts to Thailand last Sunday and organized a 12-member team of doctors, nurses and sanitary engineers to help in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster in Sri Lanka. Another medical team will be sent to Indonesia.

The Philippine government sent the team after Thailand asked for help in getting DNA samples of the dead — including 16 believed to be Filipinos — so they could be immediately buried but later identified, said DFA spokesman Gilbert Asuque.

The unidentified bodies were in temporary freezers or caskets packed with dry ice, Asuque said. Tsunamis killed about 5,000 people in Thailand, 2,407 of them foreigners. It was not clear how many have been identified.

Up to 120 Filipinos were working as musicians and resort employees work in the Thai tourist haven of Phuket when giant waves battered the island.

The Filipino experts, who belong to the criminal investigation unit of the National Bureau of Investigation, have worked to identify victims of plane crashes and the SuperFerry 14 fire, believed set off by a terrorist bomb, which killed more than 100 people last year.

In a related development, Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas said the government remains confident that the tsunami disaster will not result in a massive displacement of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) employed in affected countries.

"I don’t think our deployment would be affected because Thailand, Indonesia and other affected countries are not traditional destinations for Filipino workers," Sto. Tomas said.

She noted that only a few OFWs are employed in Phuket and other areas in Thailand, which has recorded the largest number of Filipino fatalities.

"We have only one recorded OFW tsunami victim. All the rest are tourists," Sto. Tomas said.

She added that all 82 Filipinos working in the Maldives are confirmed safe while most Filipinos in Indonesia are employed far from the coastline.

Sto. Tomas also reported that the government does not have any record of Filipinos working in Sri Lanka and India, and there were no reports of Filipinos missing in the area after the tsunamis hit. — With Marvin Sy, Mayen Jaymalin, AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved