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Pakistan beefs up security for Catholic pilgrimage

20,000 police officers called up for annual event following violent election month

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Pakistan beefs up security for Catholic pilgrimage

Archbishop Sebastian Shaw (center left) and members of the pilgrimage committee inspect preparations at the Marian grotto in Mariamabad on Aug. 24. (Photo by Jasber Ashiq)

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In the wake of recent election violence, Pakistan's Lahore Archdiocese has requested the deployment of additional police for an annual Catholic pilgrimage.

About 20,000 officers — up 5,000 from last year — will provide security at the 69th pilgrimage from Sept. 7-9 at the National Marian Shrine in Mariamabad village of Punjab province.

"There is a threat of terrorist attacks every year," Father Arshad Alfonse, who is in charge of pilgrimage security, told ucanews.com.

"Extra security measures have to be adopted for one million pilgrims expected from all over the country. Four walk-through gates will be installed at the entrance to the grotto. Additionally, a mobile phone jammer will be installed in the church compound."

In the lead-up to Pakistan's July 25 general election, 181 people died in violence at political gatherings. These included a former agriculture minister in Balochistan province and a leader of the Awami National Party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Parishes around the country offered special instructions for the pilgrimage during prayers on Sept. 2. Diocesan-owned Catholic TV has been airing documentaries and lectures on the event since last month.

"Legal action will be taken against those who bring weapons, flammable materials or drugs during the pilgrimage. Those wearing shorts will not be allowed in the grotto," catechist Sarfraz Victor told the congregation at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore.

Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore also held a meeting with the pilgrimage committee and inspected preparations at the Marian grotto on Aug. 24. A team of 300 local volunteers attended security training by elite commandos the next day.

Last year, four Catholics died while travelling to the shrine. According to Father Alfonse, most were motorcyclists. Church authorities have posted instructions for safe driving on roads leading to the village.

"Wall chalking and posters are being used to create awareness. Our volunteers will be checking visitors inside the church compound and the tented grounds fronting the grotto. They have been instructed to remain alert for any suspicious person and handle the emergencies," Father Alfonse said.

"Many pilgrims quarrel with authorities because they are irked by lengthy queues at check posts. The ongoing monsoon season is another challenge. Church stalls and pilgrimage camps are usually damaged by torrential rain."

Lahore Archdiocese administers the shrine in Mariamabad, literally the city of Mary. It is part of St. Mary and St. Joseph Parish, established by Belgian Capuchins in 1898. The theme selected for this year's pilgrimage is "St. Mary the Eucharist woman." 

Watch this short documentary by Catholic TV Pakistan about the pilgrimage.

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