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Sunday, November 30, 1997 Published at 20:29 GMT

image: [ BBC Correspondent: Orla Guerin ]Orla Guerin

In Italy, part of the famed basilica of St Francis in Assisi has been reopened, two months after the earthquakes which killed eleven and destroyed some of the basilica's priceless art treasures. The basilica's upper church, which housed the shattered frescoes, is to remain closed until 1999. From Assisi, Orla Guerin reports:

Winter cold and drizzling rain didn't spoil the day for the faithful who made their way to the basilica of St Francis of Assisi. They had something to celebrate.

They could worship again inside the lower church two months after the deadly quakes which destroyed some of the basilica's priceless art treasures. The lower church was relatively undamaged and has been declared safe for visitors.

Nonetheless, the turn-out today was small. The congregation was told that this was a day of hope.

Now we can look forward, said Father Nicola Giandomenico, a spokesman for the Franciscans. But reopening the lower church is the easy part.

It will take a long time and a lot of faith to try to repair the damage in the upper church. The quakes brought down sections of its frescoed ceilings.

Now only fragments remain and there's a heated dispute here about how much can be patched back together and how best to do that work. Whatever approach is eventually adopted, the public won't be let back into the upper church until the end of 1999.

By then, the Italian government says it will have restored the basilica to its former glory, in time for celebrations in the year 2000. But after such extensive damage, others believe that may not be possible.

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