08/26/2006, 00.00
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Miracle of Mary's House in Ephesus, spared from the flames

An enormous fire destroyed 1,200 hectares of forest, but the flames stopped one metre short of the shrine. Here is the account of a monk who witnessed what people did not hesitate to describe as a "miracle".

Ankara (AsiaNews) – People are saying it is a miracle while religious admit the incident was indeed "extraordinary". A devastating summer fire in Turkey wiped out 1,200 hectares of forest and came to a halt barely a metre away from the House of Mary, near Selcuk, a shrine that is the destination of pilgrims from all over the world, Christians and Muslims. The house of Meryem Ana is also likely to be a stage in the journey of Pope Benedict XVI to this country at the end of November. This led some of the media to think, at first, that the fire was caused by arson, while others suspected an attack by the PKK of the Kurds. Speculations were put to rest when it was found that the fire was probably caused by people who were picnicking in the forest: the heat, dryness and wind contributed to the fire, as happened in other coastal areas.

On Sunday 20 August, as a result of the torrid heat sweeping across Turkey and the strong dry wind, 23 enormous forest fires were reported at the same time along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. They struck the most crowded tourist areas like Bodrum and Antalya and 1,200 hectares of forest were burnt. Even Izmir zone was not spared and the "House of Our Lady" risked going up in flames. Fully immersed in greenery, it was reached by the fire that spread from the bottom of the hill, furiously burning everything that came in its way.

But the flames, as if by magic, stopped barely a metre away from the simple brick house. The building consists of two sections identified as the living room and bedroom of the Virgin, who is said to have ended her earthly life here. Currently the place is a shrine, the destination of both Christian and Muslim pilgrims who come from all around the world. Everyone immediately claimed this was a miracle and the news was reported in capital letters in the headlines of the main national papers.

The extraordinary nature of the event was confirmed by an Italian Capuchin, Fr Adriano Franchini, resident of Meryem Ana Evi (Mary's house) and superior of the Custody of Turkey. "Yes, we had a rough time," he said. "After receiving the notice to evacuate, I concerned myself with bringing the car to a place of safety to be able to escape. I found for our guests and then I wanted to return home to get some things but there was no chance to do so, we could no longer approach: we saw the smoke and the high flames coming closer. We feared the wind may change direction and we would be trapped; the speed with which the flames spread and advances among the pine trees was incredible."

He continued: "We had to escape quickly amid tears and desperate searching for relatives, but everyone was able to reach safety. When we came together down in Selcuk (a town at the foot of the hill), the first news that reached us from the helicopters, when they finally arrived, were really bad: everything is burning, nothing will be saved! Then there was a ray of optimism... at last, towards the evening, there was the realization that the fire had been truly devastating, spreading across a large area and all around Meryem Ana and our homes, but the shrine and homes had remained intact!"

The Franciscan did not say it was a miracle, but he admitted that what had happened was extraordinary. "Even around our houses, the fire reached the outer wall on three sides, and a burnt tree fell on the roof but the flames did not take hold in the residence; even a palm tree one metre from the house was burnt to cinders! The fire around the shrine came as far as the benches outside, where mass is celebrated in the open, and stopped there. People who saw the devastation all around say it is a miracle. Certainly it is a scenario with incredible features."

None of the many pilgrims present were injured and the incident did nothing to stop the flux of tourists and believers, who are currently going in even greater numbers to take stock of the disaster and to admire the miracle.

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