Pakistani Catholics, Muslims flock by thousands to Marian shrine [Excerpts]
For 10 years, Zakir Hussain and his wife consulted gynecologists and even visited clairvoyants to see how they could have children.
Now the father of two sons, Hussain shared the secret of their success. "Not medicine, but Mary answered our prayers," the 35-year-old Muslim told UCA News at the National Marian Shrine at Mariamabad, where he had beseeched the blessed mother's help. His first boy was born in 2004, followed a year or so later by the second. He vowed to bring his family to pay homage to Mary at the shrine's grotto for 12 consecutive years.
Hussain and his young family were among the 900,000 devotees who joined in the 58th annual pilgrimage to the shrine for the Sept. 8 feast of the Nativity of Mary. Groups of Muslims as well as Catholics started pouring into the village 260 kilometers (about 160 miles) south of Islamabad on Sept. 6. Lahore Archdiocese administers the shrine in Mariamabad, literally the city of Mary.
The three-day festival at the shrine began with a procession on Sept. 7. Bishop Joseph Coutts of Faisalabad and 20 priests walked at the head of the procession, following a palanquin bearing a statue of the Blessed Mother. Villagers placed bed sheets on the ground and strewed rose petals along the way through the streets of Mariamabad, as the crowd recited Hail Marys and chanted slogans for Jesus.
The compound of the Church of St. Mary and St. Joseph remained jam-packed throughout the three days of prayers, while stalls outside did a brisk business in food and religious cassettes, compact discs and pictures. Both the Church and CLAAS (Center for Legal Aid and Assistance), a Christian NGO, ran medical clinics.
Among Muslims at the shrine who expressed their gratitude to the blessed mother, one woman, who chose to remain anonymous, told UCA News her family owes its prosperity to Mary's blessing, following the death of her husband.
Following her visit to the shrine, circumstances changed during the last six years, she reported. One of her sons opened an auto repair shop and another a flower shop. "My daughters are now all married. It's a miracle I never thought would happen this way," she continued, adding that she has come on the pilgrimage each of those six years.
Similarly, Balli Masih, 20, has made five consecutive annual pilgrimages after his prayer for a snooker club was answered. The leader of the "Mother Mary Group" now organizes free travel caravans to the event from Lahore. "My parents used to scold me for wandering after I left school," he told UCA News, adding that he now earns up to 18,000 rupees (US$300) a month.