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India

Indian politician promises free pilgrimage to Velankanni

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is eyeing Christian votes ahead of Delhi state polls

Indian politician promises free pilgrimage to Velankanni

Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi, lights a lamp during a function to mark the centenary of the All India Catholic Union in New Delhi on Aug. 23, 2019. (Photo: UCA News)

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has added Velankanni Church in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to his government’s promised free pilgrimage scheme for senior citizens.

“We were getting requests from our Christian brothers and sisters to include some of their pilgrimage sites to the scheme, so we have decided to include Velankanni Church,” Kejriwal said at a virtual press conference on Nov. 24.

The provincial government of India’s national capital will be launching its free pilgrimage scheme on Dec. 3 with a group of 1,000 senior citizens boarding a train for Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, known as the birthplace of Hindu deity Ram. It has also announced free tours to other religious spots like Ajmer Sharif and Shirdi temple.

“India is a secular country where all religions, castes and creeds are respected. If Delhi government is implementing the scheme for other faiths, why not consider Christians too?” Father Savarimuthu Sankar, spokesperson of the Archdiocese of Delhi, told UCA News.

He, however, cautioned Christians to “be careful about the promises made by politicians” as they may not always come true.

“Several states in India are due for assembly elections early next year, hence political party leaders are busy trying to woo voters with such promises,” the priest said.

Velankanni was declared a holy city by the Vatican and draws hundreds and thousands of devotees from all faiths from all over the world

A.C. Michael, a national coordinator of the United Christian Forum, told UCA News that the scheme would benefit over 300,000 Christians, mostly Catholics, in Delhi.

“It will be good if he [Kejriwal] could include pilgrimage centers of other denomination churches too,” he added.

Velankanni, a small hamlet renowned for its Catholic shrine, the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health, is located on the sandy shores of the Bay of Bengal. It is considered one of the holiest Christian pilgrimage destinations in India. The shrine is also known as the Velankanni Church or "Lourdes of the East."

It is believed that Blessed Virgin Mary appeared here along with Baby Jesus around the late 16th and early 17th century, after which it became a revered site for the Christian community.

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Velankanni was declared a holy city by the Vatican and draws hundreds and thousands of devotees from all faiths from all over the world.

People believe that the Lady of Health possesses miraculous powers and heals people irrespective of their religion, caste or creed if they visit the shrine and pay their respects.

Kamal Bansal, chairman of the free pilgrimage scheme, said the Delhi government will bear the expenditure of the senior citizens to 13 pilgrim places like Puri, Rameswaram, Shirdi, Mathura, Haridwar and Tirupati.

Any resident of the national capital aged 60 or above can avail of the scheme provided they get an approval certificate from a local member of the Delhi State Legislative Assembly.

The scheme was approved in January 2018 and more than 35,000 senior citizens benefited from it before it was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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