Nasreen at her stall selling rosaries, photos of the Holy Family, cross pendants and Christian wooden bracelets to pilgrims in Mariamabad village on Sept. 13. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry)
Nasreen was depressed after a stroke left her husband paralyzed on his right side three years ago. Her youngest son took up his father’s job as a mason in the Catholic village of Mariamabad in Pakistan’s Punjab province.
“Suddenly our sole breadwinner became bedridden. The loans kept climbing. I felt helpless as an unskilled housewife,” the 46-year-old mother of five told ucanews.com.
That was until Lahore Archdiocese announced that the 70th annual pilgrimage to the National Marian Shrine in Mariamabad would be held from Sept. 13-15 under the theme " St. Mary: The woman of dialogue.”
More than a million devotees and young people from all over Pakistan traveled to the shrine on foot, by bicycle or in vehicles to pray and intercede with the Blessed Mother for special favors. They lit candles and incense sticks and covered the statue of the Blessed Mother with colorful embroidered dupattas (long scarves).
In keeping with tradition, thousands of Muslims also expressed their personal devotion to Mary, whom the Quran honors as the mother of Jesus, considered a prophet. The non-stop processions head toward a grotto that is a replica of the one in Lourdes, France.
An area in front of the Church of St. Mary and St. Joseph was allocated for a weekend market. The selection of goods and services included Christian gifts, souvenirs, gospel CDs, toys, clothing, food, beverages and even tattoo parlors. Besides charging vendors rent, the pilgrimage committee offers electricity for 200 rupees (US$1.28) per day.
Nasreen set up a stall selling rosaries, photos of the Holy Family, cross pendants and Christian wooden bracelets in her street.
"The items ranged from 25 to 150 rupees. In three days I earned enough profit to buy groceries for a month. I wish the visitors would keep coming throughout the year,” she said.
Mariamabad village was founded by Capuchin Bishop Van Den Bosch, who bought 60 hectares of government land for 650,000 rupees in 1893 for Christians to live and work after seeing their oppression. The first pilgrimage took place on Sept. 8, 1949, but only for one day.
The opening procession at the Marian pilgrimage in Mariamabad on Sept. 13. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry)
Controversy rages on
Many devotees believe that a physical manifestation of Mary at the sacred location led to its founding, or that a miracle through Mary’s intercession motivated the devotees to build a religious shrine in her honor. Another popular legend says a Muslim woman from a neighboring village built the first shrine to Mary in Mariamabad.
However, Father Bernard Emmanuel, rector of the shrine in Mariamabad, denies these claims.
“The annual observance started as a mela, a rural religious fair centered around the mausoleum or shrine of a saint, to mark the birthday of Mary. Many mela honor popular Muslim saints in Sindh and Punjab provinces. However in the 1970s, we started discouraging the carnival atmosphere, funky fashion and crawling on elbows. The term ‘pilgrimage’ was popularized and printed on posters to highlight the devotion,” he said.
“The Muslim transport companies in Punjab display banners of the mela for a three-day direct bus service to Mariamabad. We don’t mind as they also display crosses on bus stations. That’s a rare display in public places.”
For Father Emmanuel, the pilgrimage is more than a business opportunity. He said more than 50 stalls offering free food and beverages were placed inside the church compound amid hot and humid weather, while 80 new restrooms were constructed for the jubilee year.
“The locals also offer free board and lodging to anyone who knocks on their door. Our parish accommodates about 70 priests and more than 100 nuns as well as catechists in surrounding convents and schools.”
Archbishop Christophe Zakhia El-Kassis, apostolic nuncio to Pakistan, blessed a new altar at the shrine in the pilgrimage’s inaugural prayer. Other events included healing prayers, gospel singing, sharing of testimonies and rosary recitations. Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore unveiled the latest edition of an Urdu (national language) Catholic Bible in bold text.
Archbishop Christophe Zakhia El-Kassis (center) at the opening Mass on Sept. 13. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry)
Security the biggest challenge
In his address at the concluding prayer on Sept. 15, Archbishop Shaw thanked Punjab’s government for appointing 2,000 policemen for security, establishing an 11-bed hospital and installing floodlights at the entrance to the village.
“Dialogue demands tolerance and opens new ways. Our own volunteers numbered about 400, including 50 girls. Remember this is not a mela — only pilgrims grant blessings and miracles,” he said, citing security as the biggest challenge.
According to Rana Muhammad Iqbal, station house officer of nearby Khanqah Dogran police station, police from eight districts collaborated to protect pilgrims.
“The officers were engaged in eight-hour shifts, while 36 police vehicles patrolled major roads leading to the village and heavy traffic was diverted to the motorway to avoid accidents. The weekend market was cordoned by barbed wire and 20 snipers were deployed on buildings around the shrine,” he said.
“Groups of young people danced to the beat of large drums, Qawwals [a devotional style of music rooted in Sufism] featured in night performances, while business continued round the clock in the shops. The pilgrimage benefits everyone.”
According to media reports, more than 30 shrines across Pakistan have been attacked in the past decade. The Center for Islamic Research Collaboration and Learning claims more than 200 people were killed and 600 injured from 2005 to 2017 in 29 attacks targeting shrines devoted to Sufi saints.
In May, 12 people were killed after a suicide bombing at Data Darbar, an 11th century shrine in Lahore.
Watch this ucanews.com video for more.