Father Domingo Jimenez had just dropped to his knees to say his evening prayers when rebel gunmen came crashing in through the chapel's wooden door.

Throwing a porcelain statue of the Virgin Mary to the ground into a thousand shattered pieces, one of the young gunmen shoved his rifle barrel into the soft-spoken priest's ribs and ominously told Jimenez to finish his prayers."They said to me `You are a god man, you must be prepared to die,' " Jimenez said. "I thought, if I was going to die, this is a good place."

That was the first night of a horrifying three weeks at the mercy of a renegade army of bandits that ruled Sierra Leone for 10 months after a bloody May coup and now, ousted and on the run, are bent on revenge and destruction.

With President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah back in Sierra Leone and a West African coalition army now in control of much of northern Sierra Leone, the church, like the rest of the country, is trying to recover from the ordeal.

The Nigerian-led coalition army fighting on behalf of Kabbah has secured Makeni and other towns in the north, but elsewhere, in the southeast, junta soldiers and rebels are still on the loose.

On that terrifying night two weeks ago, the gunmen left Jimenez kneeling at the altar. He said one more prayer and then locked himself and another priest in a room at the back of the church.

Throughout the night, small bands of rebel soldiers, rifles cocked, barged through the Religion House chapel and carted off everything they could carry, he said.

"It was days of living with panic, living in terror, fearing for our lives," Jimenez recalled, while sitting in the dusty, sun-baked courtyard of Makeni's Catholic-run Pastoral Center.

"They were shooting and stealing. One man put his gun on the altar and said `I will kill you here,' " he said.

The chaos began in mid-February when the West African coalition army drove the country's military junta from power.

In the countryside, former junta soldiers linked up with rebel fighters in an orgy of looting and destruction, rape, random killing and torture.

Towns and villages, sacked by the bandits, were left in smoldering ruins, with buildings gutted by fire and pocked-marked with bullet holes.

In the southern town of Bo, 75 miles southwest of the capital, Freetown, farmers have begun uncovering mass graves.

The church, like the whole of Sierra Leone, was not immune to the lawless destruction.

With its wealth and influence in Sierra Leone, the Catholic church was a vocal critic of the junta and its rebel allies.

When church leaders last month reiterated their call for the ouster of Lt. Col. Johnny Paul Koroma's military regime, they set themselves up for revenge, Makeni's Bishop George Biguzzi explained.