'God is merciful. But will the captors hear our prayers?'

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The vicar whose church stands a stone's throw from the place that Ken Bigley calls home called locals together last night to pray, light a candle and articulate the sense of bewilderment and despair which has pervaded them in recent days.

The vicar whose church stands a stone's throw from the place that Ken Bigley calls home called locals together last night to pray, light a candle and articulate the sense of bewilderment and despair which has pervaded them in recent days.

But the sense of hope he wanted to engender was shattered after a tap on the shoulder from his church warden at 8pm, an hour into the simple service for which 300 people had packed into St Mary's of Walton on the Hill, one of the Liverpool's oldest churches.

The Rev Trevor Latham was informed of Jack Hensley's execution and left with the responsibility of informing his parishioners. The gasps were audible and a number left in tears, half an hour later.

"How do you articulate that for people?" he said later. "The sense of horror was palpable but telling them was the only thing to do - it's about truth and reality."

As the congregation emerged from the 1,000-year-old church, it was evident how difficult the news had been to digest. Sue Bennett was one of those visibly distressed. "It is just so awful, it really is," she said."I've never met the family but my husband works abroad to make a decent living for me and my son and he is doing what Ken does - making a better life for the family."

Mr Latham, whose knowledge of such local bewilderment derives from the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster (he buried three of the dead) took some advice from a parishioner who, like Mr Bigley, has worked in the Middle East and suggested he relate the integral importance of mercy in the Koran.

He told his audience: "At the beginning of each verse of the Koran are the words 'God is Merciful', I hope these people who are holding these hostages may know a sense of mercy and understand what it is to be merciful. We will first remember Ken at this time. Pray for him, think of him now, waiting and all that darkness and uncertainty. We pray for peace in his heart and mind. We pray for courage for him. We pray that he may be strengthened by the love and prayers of his family and so many who think of him at this moment.''

At the outset, the vicar had prayed for the soul of one executed hostage. In the end, he sent the congregation out with prayers for the souls of two.

The night's events leaves the community hardly daring to think what today holds for Mr Bigley. His visits to his 86-year-old mother, Lil, have been as infrequent as once a year over the last decade and the last of them was six months ago. Only a fading Merseyside accent and his support for Everton Football Club mark him out as a Liverpudlian. But that has not stopped the people of Bedford Street, 200 yards from the church, adopting him as 'Ken' - one of their own.

A steady flow of flowers and cards to the adjoining terraced homes occupied by Lil and her elderly sister continued throughout yesterday. They were delivered with thoughts of a man who, it is now known, has experienced his fair share of tragedy and had plans to carve out a new life before calamity struck. In 1986, his son from his first marriage - Paul, 17 - was critically injured in a road crash and Mr Bigley had to allow his life-support machine to be turned off.

He left Britain for 10 years in the Middle East and had plans to retire to Thailand with his Thai wife, Lek, 42, in the next few months. He is also due to become a grandfather in February. The wife of his remaining son, Craig, 38, is expecting a child.

A picture of his generosity also emerged: Mr Bigley had reportedly taken to inviting his less well-off neighbours to hook up to his electricity generator.

Stories like this encouraged John Gannon, 70, a King's Regiment veteran who served in Korea, to catch the train from nearby Bootle specifically to pay his respects in Bedford Street yesterday. "Ken was not a soldier. He went all that way to work," he said. "This has happened because Blair stuck too closely to the Yanks."

The hardening of opinion against Mr Blair, which started early yesterday when Mr Bigley's brother Philip launched an attack on him, was also evident on BBC Radio Merseyside's morning phone-in, as good a barometer as any of local opinion. "This war simply should never have happened," said one caller.

It was a sign of the anti-Blair sentiment, engendered by the kidnappings, that the lunchtime regulars at Byrnes chippy let a compliment to Margaret Thatcher go unchallenged yesterday. Peter Davies collecting fish cakes before returning to work at Girobank, was talking about the Geneva Convention when it slipped out. "It states that if you're going to invade a country you have to leave it in a decent condition. We haven't, Ken's reaping the consequences and the Government can't do anything about it," he declared. "I hate to say it, but Thatcher would have had done something about this."

It was quite an assertion to make in Bedford Street, Walton, north Liverpool, where "Labour" still means socialist and Peter Kilfoyle is the local MP.

This was the only point that locals could unite on. For all their compassion, few are sure about how the hostage-takers should have been dealt with. "Do everything possible. The French did, when their lads were taken," said Jim Kelly, 38, in Byrnes chippy. "It's not as simple as that," said Marion Shiells in the local furniture store. "If we give in to them, they could end kidnapping anyone they chose."

The dilemma was reflected on the front page of last night's Liverpool Echo which, rather than demand Mr Bigley's release, carried the banner headline "We can't give in".

Downing Street sources indicated that Mr Blair had said as much to several of the family during a telephone call to Bedford Street - and that they had accepted the point.

But Phil Bigley, who lives in Holland, probably did not. He is far more critical of the PM and it is understood the family's TV interviews on Monday evening, pleading for Mr Bigley's release, came after he saw Mr Blair's statement on the abductions and telephoned Sky News. He favours a more proactive approach to the media but his relatives in the UK have been persuaded by the Foreign Office's position that public statements may jeopardise negotiations.

The family's MP, Peter Kilfoyle, said he had spoken to them on the telephone and sensed that they were staying positive. But he would not be drawn on how the situation should be dealt with. "I would not come down on whether the UK should negotiate. The family just want Ken back.

In a joint message to the hostage takers, the Bishop of Liverpool, Dr James Jones, and Liverpool Muslim leader Akbar Ali, said: "In the name of God the rightful one ... we appeal to you as believers to have mercy on Ken Bigley and Jack Hensley," they said.

But Rev Latham conceded that assuaging local fears was nigh on impossible. "People need to have somewhere where something within them can be articulated," he said. "But it's not easy."

THE FAMILY'S PLEAS

Mr Bigley's son, Craig: "I ask Tony Blair personally to consider the amount of bloodshed already suffered. Only you can save him now ... Please meet the demands and release my father - two women for two men. The Prime Minister is a father - he has children. I am a child - I have a father... We ask him to help us."

Mr Bigley's brother, Philip: "We have seen the Prime Minister spending time on trains that can help a commuter save 14 minutes on a journey to London when he should be devoting his time to saving the life of my brother. We are not politicians. He is the political head of our country. It is the Prime Minister who has the power to save Ken's life. Prime Minister, we as a family are begging you, please help us. The death of the American hostage has proved to us that if nothing is done then the two remaining captives will die by the most horrific means."

Mr Bigley's brother, Paul: "We have nothing to do with the military, with politicians. I don't like the policy of the present Government... I am not impressed with Mr Bush and his antics. I don't think anybody else is, in the whole wide world ... Now, dare I say it, I think I am going to lose my brother. The whole attack on Iraq was absolutely ridiculous... I will not be told to shut up, not about an important situation like this."

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