By Kamran Chaudhry
More than 1.2 million pilgrims visit Mariamabad village in Pakistan’s Punjab province to help its economy every year. A new master plan by the local government will boost it further.
The faithful have been jubilant in the Catholic village since Punjab governor Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar ordered expediting the construction of a 4.1-kilometer road from Sheikhupura district to Mariamabad at a cost of 66 million rupees (US$411,000) and announced the installation of a filtration plant at the Church of St. Mary and St. Joseph at the National Marian Shrine in Mariamabad.
The master plan includes construction of rooms for visitors, provision of gas and addressing electricity cuts in Mariamabad.
Children showered rose petals on Sarwar and Ejaz Alam Augustine, Punjab’s minister of human rights and minorities affairs, who visited the shrine on Jan. 11. Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore presented a turban, which symbolizes honor, to the governor.
Addressing the gathering, Sarwar urged improving civic facilities for Christian pilgrims and providing better accommodation for religious tourists.
“Fortunately, there are holy places of all religions in Pakistan, including Christians and Sikhs, from which we can earn $4-5 billion annually through the promotion of tourism. If the pilgrimage site has all the basic facilities for tourists, then the number of visitors will definitely increase”, he said.
“The protection of holy places of religious minorities is the responsibility of the government. Pakistan defends minority rights.”
Since 2007, Punjab’s government has been providing electronic gates and deploying more than 1,000 police officers to safeguard the shrine and its pilgrims.
Governor Sarwar, who heads the religious tourism and heritage committee, is working for the renovation of holy places of all religions across the province to promote religious tourism.
In 2018, Pakistan launched a visa-free road for Sikh pilgrims from India to visit a famous shrine in the neighboring country. Prime Minister Imran Khan attended the opening ceremony of the Kartarpur (Village of God) route across the India-Pakistan border, three kilometers from Gurdaspur in Punjab.
The route provides direct access to the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur by the River Ravi, close to the border. The shrine is important to Sikhs because it is built on an historic site where Guru Nanak established a Sikh community in the wake of his missionary travels. Both Muslims and Sikhs revere the guru, and both performed rituals associated with their respective faiths to commemorate his passing.
Similarly, hundreds of thousands of Catholic and Muslim devotees join the Marian pilgrimage held every September on the feast of the Nativity of Mary. In keeping with tradition, thousands of Muslims express their personal devotion to Mary, whom the Quran honors as the mother of Jesus, considered a prophet. Tents are erected for those staying in the compound.
In 1882, Bishop Emmanuel Won Dan Bush and a priest bought 150 acres of land from the attorney-general of India to create the Catholic village.
Devotees and young people from all over Pakistan travel to the shrine on foot, by bicycle or in vehicles to queue for hours and pray at the Marian shrine for special favors. Many light candles or incense sticks, cover the statue of the Blessed Mother with embroidered dupattas (long scarfs) and silver crowns, dance to the beat of large drums and share testimonies as well as participate in healing prayers, gospel singing, sharing of testimonies and rosary recitations. The non-stop processions head towards a grotto that is a replica of the one in Lourdes, France.
Renovation of Christian sites was one of the main priorities of a July 2019 meeting of a delegation from the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference with Prime Minister Imran Khan. Lahore Archdiocese helped in drafting the government’s renovation plan for Mariamabad last year.
Archbishop Shaw briefed the government delegation in the parish house. He also thanked the governor for taking a personal interest in developing the shrine.
“We invited him last year but he could not visit due to coronavirus pandemic. The three-day national pilgrimage was also canceled and caravans from all provinces were instructed not to come,” he later told UCA News.
“There were no announcements to avoid the public. Strict standard operating procedures were adopted for the governor’s visit. He already knows about the Lourdes shrine and is impressed by our missionary school system.
“This is a big gift for the local Church. Power cuts were a major challenge, especially during the pilgrimage. We offered a plan from Sargodha district road only four kilometers away. The shrine is the pride of Pakistan. We are trying to make it more beautiful and spiritual.”
Last week Punjab’s government allocated 50 million rupees to renovate St. Anthony Church and Lahore Cathedral. The walled city of Lahore Authority will collaborate to clean the churches, repair damaged wires and roofs as well as aid water proofing. The plan will be completed in June.