05/26/2006, 00.00
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Five thousand take part in the 'Asian Women Pilgrimage' to Our Lady of Lebanon

by Youssef Hourany
The women, decked out in various dresses, chanting songs and reciting intentions of prayer in many languages, visit the shrine in Harissa.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – More than five thousand women and their families converged on the Harissa Shrine yesterday for what has been dubbed the first 'Asian Women Pilgrimage'. The women, decked out in various dresses, chanting songs and reciting intentions of prayer, are originally from the Philippines, China, Sri Lanka, Thailand, some even from Ethiopia.

They walked for seven kilometres to the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in this month of May in response to an invitation made by the Bishops' Commission for Migrants and Itinerants headed by Mgr Semaan Attallah, Maronite Archbishop of Baalbeck-Deir El Ahmar.

The 'Asian Women Pilgrimage' started with a visit to the See of the Maronite Patriarchate in Bkerke, where a prayer was said for peace. The women expressed their gratitude towards the Lebanese who were generous towards many of their relatives back home when their respective countries were hit by the tsunami in 2004.

In Harissa, Fr Hannoun Andraos, Maronite missionary and rector of the Our Lady of Lebanon Shrine, welcomed the pilgrims.

Through interpreters the women heard the story of the shrine founded in 1904, now classified as a national sanctuary, and run by the Maronites.

Perched at the top of what the Lebanese consider one of the most beautiful hills in the world, the shrine looks out into the Mediterranean Sea.

Every year it receives more than a million pilgrims and recently, the missionary fathers added a hostel, 'Beit Ania' or Ania House, with proper facilities for pilgrims on a shoestring budget.

Card Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, visited Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral in 1954.

During his pastoral visit to Lebanon in 1997, Pope John Paul II, in an address to young Lebanese, spoke of the now famous "Lebanese formula" for Christian-Muslim coexistence. Here, he signed the post-synod apostolic exhortation "A New Hope for Lebanon".

Speaking to AsiaNews, Fr Andraos illustrated the meaning of the pilgrimage and the fundamental link between Lebanon and Our Lady. He said that "since the beginning of the year, we have welcomed more than 700,000 pilgrims, of all confessions, providing them with the necessary wherewithal to fulfill their pilgrimage in a dignified manner, including hot meals, thanks to the generosity of charities."

The shrine's rector noted that many pilgrims go back home saying they were cured of ailments because of Our Lady's intercession. They also speak of the spiritual fruits the pilgrimage has given them.

"Everyone kneels at the pedestal of the statue of Our Lady. No one can remain indifferent in Harissa. Many young people coming from neighbouring Arab countries show what Our Lady's intercession gave them."

Mass, which was celebrated by the episcopal delegate for the pastoral for migrants and itinerants, was sung by a multilingual choir.

A poignant moment came during the offertory, when more than fifty intentions were read out in various languages.

Capuchin Fr Salim Rizkallah thanked God for the spirit of faith that filled pilgrims' hearts, especially of ordinary people.

He appealed to the Lebanese (who employ many of these women) to respect the Church's social doctrine and everyone's religious freedom.

Mercy, a woman from the Philippines, described the pilgrimage in words full of emotions. "In Harissa we saw the open sky," she said.

Lisa, a young woman from Sri Lanka, expressed a wish for greater spiritual guidance. She thanked God that her employers are practicing Catholics who permit her to go to church whenever she wants and asked that she and her fellow women be allowed to set up their personal parish so as "to experience their own mass, not that of others".

The pilgrimage ended with a torchlight procession. During the ceremony, the Asian women, dressed in traditional clothes and carrying candles, chanted the Holy Mary in various languages.

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“L’Asia: ecco il nostro comune compito per il terzo millennio!” - Giovanni Paolo II, da “Alzatevi, andiamo”