Their prayers and fasting have taken on greater urgency in the past week as fears rise that Jonas Savimbi's Unita rebel movement is preparing to strike at Angola's economic heartland. Cabinda provides two-thirds of the country's 500,000-barrels-per-day oil production. 'The people here are really afraid,' said Bishop Paulinho Fernandes Mudeca. 'At the slightest sign of trouble, they pack up their belongings and flee to the bush.'
From early morning, Cabinda airport is full of civilians attempting to scramble aboard a flight to Luanda, the capital. On Saturday the Chevron US oil company began to evacuate personnel from its Cabinda Gulf complex.
The recent fighting in Angola, in which at least 10,000 people have been killed, prompted the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, to recommend that the Security Council extend the mandate of the UN Verification Mission for another three months but threaten a total pull- out unless both sides respected a ceasefire.
The United States has warned that any attacks on the Cabinda oil installations 'would have the greatest implications' for Unita's long-standing relationship with Washington. 'The message is simple,' the chief US representative in Angola, Edmund DeJarnette, said on Sunday, saying he was speaking on behalf of President Bill Clinton. 'These are our people. This is our property. Hands off Cabinda, Mr Savimbi.' Last week President Jose Eduardo dos Santos wrote to President Clinton, asking the US to establish full diplomatic relations with Luanda, as have all other main powers.
The panic in Cabinda began on 16 December, when Unita closed its offices and retreated into the thick forests. Three days later Unita forces occupied the oil town of Soyo, source of 30 per cent of Angola's oil, and took at least 17 foreigners prisoner.
Cabinda has remained relatively calm since Mr Savimbi refused to accept that he had lost the September elections, Angola's first, and resumed his war against the former Marxist government.
A low-level independence war led by the armed wing of the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (Flec) has died down since a series of attacks in September provoked a short-lived mutiny among government troops, and Mr dos Santos promised negotiations to settle the dispute.
The success of a Unita attack on Cabinda could depend on negotiations with Flec, whose fighters control much of the dense bushlands around the Cabinda Gulf complex at Malongo. 'If Unita makes an agreement with Flec then it would be very dangerous,' said Bishop Mudeca. 'But I doubt it will happen. The people want independence but they do not want war.'
Luanda has accused Zaire and South Africa of aiding Unita's military campaign. Both countries denied it, but the army said it had captured four Zairean soldiers and shot down a South African aircraft in Huambo province.