Tens of thousands of Cubans flocked to the shrine of St Lazarus near the capital Havana for the annual pilgrimage last month.
Some barefoot, some crawling along the ground, pilgrims of all ages headed for the shrine at a church in El Rincón, 30 kilometres southeast of Havana, in honour of the saint they call San Lázaro, whose holy day is on December 17. They prayed mainly for health and prosperity.
“It's a different atmosphere – you breathe in love and reconciliation,” said Mario Corelli, an Italian tourist who has attended the San Lázaro event several times. “Everyone wants to enjoy the grace of San Lázaro.”
Observers said numbers were down on previous years, but so were the figures for serious casualties that sometimes accompany such mass events.
A Red Cross paramedic on standby for any medical emergencies said at least 30,000 people attended on December 16-17. Nevertheless, he said, the number of pilgrims was falling year by year.
“I’ve been working as a paramedic on the San Lázaro days for ten years now. Five years ago, I remember that there were more than 50,000 people, but more recently the numbers have gone down considerably,” he said.
On the positive side, the paramedic said there were no reports of deaths this year, always a risk because of the gruelling hardships which pilgrims put themselves through. Some drag themselves along the ground or tie heavy weights to their feet.
After hostility from the atheist Communist government in the early years after the Cuban revolution, Roman Catholicism has come to enjoy greater tolerance. Pope Benedict XVI met top political leaders when he visited Cuba last March.
Respect for San Lázaro is a peculiarly Cuban affair – here the Christian saint has a folk association with Babalú Ayé, a figure from the Santeria faith of African origin. As a cultural event, the pilgrimage appeals to a wider audience than devout Catholics.
This year, the authorities helped out with food and transport arrangements. They also deployed large numbers of police to protect participants from the gangs of pickpockets and muggers who prey on them.
Street venders did a brisk trade in food, flowers and religious items among the crowds.
“I’ve earned more in these two days than in the last month,” said one trader in religious handicraft items. “Millions of thanks to my blessed San Lázaro.”
This story was first published on IWPR’s website.