09/05/2008, 00.00
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Pakistan: hearts in Lourdes, Catholics and non-Catholics celebrate the Virgin Mary

by Qaiser Felix
Today in Mariamabad, the village of the Virgin Mary, the 59th national Marian pilgrimage begins. Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs will be present at the shrine. Each year, about one million pilgrims from all the religions come to pray to the Virgin Mary.

Mariamabad (AsiaNews) - With a solemn Marian procession presided over by Lawrence John Saldanha, archbishop of Lahore and president of the Pakistani bishops' conference, the 59th national Marian pilgrimage, better known as the Ziarat-e-Muqaddasa Mariam, opens today in Mariamabad, the village of Mary.

The procession will leave the shrine at five o'clock this afternoon, crossing all the streets of the village and returning to the place of worship. The celebrations dedicated to the Virgin Mary will last three days, during which the pilgrims will be able to watch movies on topics including "Lourdes" and "Fatima." Archbishop Saldanha, Bishop Anthony Lobo (bishop of Islamabad-Rawalpindi), Bishop Andrew Francis (bishop of Multan) and Bishop Joseph Coutts (bishop of Faisalabad) will take turns presiding over the solemn Eucharistic celebrations; prayers will also be offered for peace and prosperity in Pakistan and in the world.

Devotion to the Virgin Mary is fairly widespread in the country, and includes Christians and non-Christians. For a number of days, thousands of pilgrims have been crowding the areas around the shrine. "In order to arrive on time", says the organizer, Fr Akram Javed, "many groups set out several days ago, reaching the area on foot, while the young people came on bicycles. The warmth of the pilgrimage and the fascination that it exercises over people can be felt both around the shrine and in the village".

Archbishop Saldanha explains the selection of this year's motto: "This year’s theme is 'Mary, the greatest example of stewardship'. We want to bring our people towards the ‘stewardship’ and we are ready to present them Mary as a greatest example of stewardship, so Holy Mary should be an example for them, and the faithful can bring stewardship into their lives". The prelate continues by recalling that this is the "most important event for the Pakistani Catholic Church", including the participation of people "of all ages, from all parts of the country", and above all that "it embraces the faithful of other religions", so that the number of pilgrims" grows year after year". The occasion also includes celebrations of "the 150th anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes".

The Ziarat-e-Muqaddasa Mariam represents a moment of great interest in the life of the country, capturing the attention of the television and newspapers; in recent days, the Daily Times - one of Pakistan's most important newspapers - announced that "Hindu and Sikh leaders" will also take part in the pilgrimage. The Pakistani bishops applaud this element, saying that it is "wonderful" that many Muslims also visit the shrine, and that there is the participation of representatives from the Hindu and Sikh communities: "we welcome them and are happy with their decision to come Mariamabad", the prelate concludes.

Although no official numbers are available, Fr Akram says that about one million faithful from various religions go on pilgrimage to the Marian shrine.

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