Sicilians pray for end to Etna's lava flow

People living on the slopes of Sicily's Mount Etna are asking for divine protection from the volcano.

People living on the slopes of Sicily's Mount Etna are asking for divine protection from the volcano.

In Nicolosi, the only town near the molten rivers of lava, worshippers crowded the church of Santa Maria della Grazia for mass and laid flowers at the shrine of St Anthony, the town's patron saint.

People in Nicolosi believe St Anthony protects them from the volcano and his shrine, a statue of the saint perched on a lava rock, lies at the point where the lava stopped during an 1856 eruption.

Teacher Gianbattista Martinazoli said as he left mass: "Local people still believe in miracles. If human technology can't keep the lava back, the eternal father is our only salvation."

Bulldozers and other heavy equipment has been working around the clock to divert the lava from Nicolosi and from a tourist base, Rifugio Sapienza, higher up the mountain.

The lava stopped several days ago about two and a half miles from Nicolosi and appears to have stopped advancing. The tourist station, however, was still in jeopardy and efforts to save a ski lift nearby proved fruitless.

Nicolosi's priest, Fr Bartolomeo Ruggieri, said the danger of living on the slopes of a live volcano, Europe's largest, makes his parishioners strong.

He said: "Being in danger's path makes them wiser. It makes them reflect on the human condition, about mortality, about the fact they can exist - and then not exist."

All over Sicily, people turned to their faith. At one shuttered shop at Rifugio Sapienza, a statue of the Madonna stood guard.

Thousands were expected at a special mass on the slopes this evening presided over by Catania Archbishop Luigi Bommarito.

The two main fronts of lava oozing down the slopes appeared to have slowed somewhat over the weekend but there are now reports that a new fissure has opened, stoking the blistering river.

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