09/06/2004, 00.00
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Whether on foot or by bycicle people come to Pakistan's Lourdes

Mariamabad (AsiaNews) – Mariamabad –Mary's city– has existed for over a century making it one of Pakistan's oldest Catholic settlements. Located about 80 km (50 miles) from Punjab's capital of Lahore, it covers an area of 835 hectares (2000 acres) and has become the destination for over one million pilgrims a year.

Fr John Joseph, secretary of the Ziarat-e-Muqaddasa Mariam, the annual National Marian Pilgrimage, recounted the story of the village to AsiaNews. According to him, "local Christians used to attend traditional fairs in neighbouring villages, which offered opportunities to find merriment and meet new people. Such trips would feed local talk for weeks afterwards. In 1949, Fr Frank, a Belgian capuchin, who was later martyred, realised how popular such events were and decided to do something similar in Mariamabad. After consulting other religious men he organised a feast honouring Mary on her birthday, September 8. But without locals helping Fr Frank could not have pulled it off. People from neighbouring villages were invited to what is now remembered as Mariamabad's first annual pilgrimage and about 950 people came," Father Joseph said. Eventually, Father Frank built a Grotto like the one in Lourdes and a church which now are classified as a national monument.

Hashim, a 72-year-old resident of Mariamabad, describes Father Frank as a wise and hardworking man, "who spent a lot of energy in organising the event." For that purpose, "he went to France to bring some holy water for the poor of the village. But without help from local people he could not have done it," Hashim stressed. "My father and uncle worked closely with him. The whole village chipped in, especially when people started seeing their prayers answered. In fact, offerings of food and shelter to pilgrims going to Mariamabad led more to come," Hashim added.

On June 23, 1974, a Central Committee for the Marian Pilgrimage was set up under Mgr Armando Trindade, Archbishop of Lahore, who served as its first chairman. Since February 18, 2002, Mgr Lawrence John Saldanha, who has been Archbishop of Lahore since 2001, has been the Committee's chairman.

Christians are not the only ones making the journey; Muslims, too, come to the Mariamabad shrine. Mr Hashim recalls "a Muslim Pathan from Peshawar, who came to pray to Mary because he was involved in a murder case. He promised her that if his innocence was proven he would distribute one hundred degs (pots of cooked rice each containing around 10-16 kg) to the pilgrims. Mary listened to his pleas and he was acquitted. As promised, he gave out the rice."

In more recent years, young pilgrims are coming in greater numbers, many on foot, others on their bycicle. (QF)

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