Parents of missing British girl pray for return six months on

( AFP ) - The parents of Madeleine McCann, the British toddler who vanished in Portugal, prayed in their local church at a service marking the six-month anniversary of her disappearance.

Gerry and Kate McCann attended the service at St Mary and St John parish church in the upmarket village of Rothley in Leicestershire, central England, six months to the day since their eldest child disappeared from the resort of Praia da Luz on the Algarve southern coast.

The service began at 9:30 pm (2130 GMT), thought to be the exact time that Madeleine, then aged three, went missing as her parents dined with friends in a restaurant on their apartment complex.

Reverend Rob Gladstone led special prayers for missing children, including others who have vanished.

He said a special verse entitled A Rothley Prayer, which was based on a verse from Hebrews.

It included the line: "Comfort and liberate all those, especially young children who have been taken from their families against their will, give courage to their grieving families."

The McCanns visited the church earlier with their two-year-old twins Sean and Amelie to say a private prayer, but did not bring them to the evening service.

The couple did not comment as they entered and left the 700-year-old church.

Brian Kennedy, Madeleine McCann's great uncle, told reporters: "It was a very uplifting service. Obviously this is a very emotional time for them but I think they are standing up very well."

Family friend Val Armstrong added: "They are so resolute in this. The conviction they have is that she is still alive and we have to believe that.

Kate McCann earlier made a fresh appeal for her daughter's safe return.

She said in a statement that she still believed Madeleine was alive and urged anyone with information to call Portuguese police or a special 24-hour helpline the family has set up with private detectives in Spain.

"Six months is such a long time for a little girl to be separated from her family," she said. "We believe that our Madeleine is out there somewhere and retain hope that we can be reunited.

"Madeleine is a beautiful little person who deserves a loving and happy life. To ensure this, there is no doubt that the best place for her to be is with her family. We know that somebody, somewhere can make this happen.

"That person has the ability and power to bring about so much joy as well as bring peace to themselves. If you have any information relating to Madeleine's disappearance or whereabouts, please pass it on."

Portuguese police have made the McCanns formal suspects in the case, but the couple strenuously deny any involvement, maintaining that their daughter was abducted.

They returned to England with their other children in early September after mounting a high-profile media operation to ensure maximum publicity for the police investigation.

Gerry McCann returned to work as a hospital cardiologist on Thursday after six months' unpaid leave although his wife has no immediate plans to resume her job as a general practitioner.

The story is still front-page news in British tabloid newspapers.

Sunday's front-page headlines included "Maddie cops call in Mafia" in the News of the World, "McCann friends to be named as 'suspects'" in the Sunday Express, and "15 new clues" in the Daily Star Sunday.

"McCann's heartache as cops say: case closes in seven weeks; police leave cloud of suspicion over Kate and Gerry," said the Sunday Mirror.

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