09/06/2004, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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In Mariamabad the faithful gather by the thousands for the 55th National Marian Pilgrimage

by Qaiser Felix

Muslims, too, join the multitudes to be blessed with child or healed.

Mariamabad (AsiaNews) – From September 3 to the 5, Mariamabad –Mary's city– (80 km or 50 miles from Lahore) was thronged with people of every age, class or creed all attending the 55th National Marian Pilgrimage.

Officially, the event started on Friday afternoon, but already early in the morning thousands of pilgrims lined up the route leading to the shrine. "People form two lines –one for men, the other for women– that can reach up to 150 m (170 yards) which never stop during the three-day pilgrimage," Father Joseph, Secretary of the Marian Pilgrimage told AsiaNews. "They normally bring traditional presents such as crowns, flower garlands, necklaces and dupatas (head scarves) to offer to the Virgin," he added.

"We waited for six hours," said one pilgrim, "but we absolutely wanted to touch Mary ourselves inside the shrine."

An 18-year-old Muslim pilgrim said: "This is the third time that I come on pilgrimage with Christian friends. I did it because I believe in Mary. I am not the best student but I did ask Her to help me pass an exam and She did. I am going to keep coming."

"My wife and I could not have any children," said Younas Masih, 38. "We prayed to Mary and after seven years of marriage we had a son. Now I suffer from hepatitis and can hardly walk." Mr Masih added that "standing hurts too but I am going to hold fast till I get to the shrine. I am certain that Mary will help. A Muslim family from where I live gave me some money to give Her. "

According to Father Joseph about 700,000 pilgrims made the journey in 2003. Every year, the number keeps rising by another 50-75,000. Those with relatives in Mariamabad stay longer. Local families can host anywhere between 30 and 50 people over the three-day period. Families who can't find local shelter camp in the gardens around the shrine. The better-off do not stay for very long since the village is not equipped with good restaurants or luxury hotels.

Mgr Lawrence John Saldanha, Archbishop of Lahore, presided over the pilgrimage's official opening. The procession left the shrine making its way through the streets of the village and then back to the church, where the Archbishop blessed the pilgrims, the water of the shrine and the church. And a girl officially crowned the statue of Our Lady. The ceremony went off thanks to Mariamabad's own St. Mary Academy under Sister Patricia Gill's stewardship.

In the evening, Fr Henry Paul of Sialkot and other priests celebrated mass with pilgrims showing great devotion. Afterwards they chanted sacred songs in honour of Mary.

The theme of the 55th national Pilgrimage –Mary and the Christian family– was inspired by the recent Plenary Assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences. Fr Naveed Akhter, a Dominican priest from Bhawalpur, delivered a message special for the pilgrimage: "Mary represents hope for everyone and the Holy Family is an example for all Christians. Her love and Joseph's obedience to God are important points of reference."

The message also stressed the importance of prayer for the family. "A family that prays together stays together," Father Naveed said. And the importance of love in a couple cannot be "reduced to mere physical contact within the marriage, but is rather akin to a sacred relationship."

During the event Archbishop Saldanha presented a collection of Marian songs on cassette and CD. Entitled De Dwara (at Mary's gate), the selection is produced by the Wave Studios label that specialises in sacred music under the auspices of Pakistan's Bishops' Conference.

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