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Liberia holds church service for Ebola victims, marks day usually set aside for burial cleanup

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MONROVIA, Liberia — Liberians held a church service Wednesday for Ebola victims to mark the country's 99th National Decoration Day, a holiday normally set aside for people to clean up and re-decorate the graves of their lost relatives.

More than 4,100 people have died in in Liberia since the outbreak began about a year ago in West Africa. The vast majority of those victims were cremated, so the gathering at a Presbyterian church in the capital, Monrovia, was held to remember those without graves.

Nearly 20 barrels of ashes from about 3,000 victims will eventually be buried on a plot bought by the government as a cemetery for Ebola victims. Some bodies of suspected victims were buried Wednesday in a new grave site on the outskirts of Monrovia.

With its last Ebola case being declared cured on March 5, and the last patient discharged, Liberia is now counting 42 days until April 16 when, if no new cases are reported within that period, the country can be declared Ebola-free. Sierra Leone and Guinea are still struggling to contain the outbreak.

PHOTO: A man puts flowers on a grave as he remembers a loved one suspected of dying from the Ebola virus at a new graveyard on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia, Wednesday, March 11, 2015. Liberians held a church service Wednesday for families who lost members to Ebola to mark the country’s 99th celebration National Decoration Day, a holiday normally set aside for people to clean up and re-decorate the graves of their lost relatives. (AP Photo/Abbas Dulleh)
A man puts flowers on a grave as he remembers a loved one suspected of dying from the Ebola virus at a new graveyard on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia, Wednesday, March 11, 2015. Liberians held a church service Wednesday for families who lost members to Ebola to mark the country’s 99th celebration National Decoration Day, a holiday normally set aside for people to clean up and re-decorate the graves of their lost relatives. (AP Photo/Abbas Dulleh)

"Ebola must go," said Pentecostal preacher Kortu Brown who is vice president of the Liberia council of churches. "And you, Ebola," he said to wild applause, "we Liberians love strangers. But not strangers like you, and so when you go, don't come back here again because we've got no visa for you."

Baptist Pastor Samuel Reeves said he hoped these services will help Liberians to "stop the process of grieving."

"I think it is a process not an event," he said. "It's getting us to a place where we'll begin to grapple with the fact about what has happened."

The head of Liberia's Ebola response, Assistant Health Minister Tolbert Nyenswah, received a standing ovation in the service. He told The Associated Press "The government is deciding to have a national memorial where we will document the statistics of people who died from Ebola," including names and countries.

Thousands of others who were able to bury their loved ones gathered in cemeteries across the country, cleaning and decorating graves.

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