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PORTUGAL: Fatima Moves Mountains, Terrorist Fear Moves Security

Mario de Queiroz

LEIRIA, Portugal, May 12 2004 (IPS) - Even after 87 years the question marks surrounding Fátima remain. Was it the Virgin Mary who appeared before the astonished eyes of three young Portuguese shepherds, as the Roman Catholic Church claims? Or was it a tall, blond Englishwoman, whose fair traits had never been in those isolated rural parts, as the non-believers maintain?

The ones not asking such questions are the Portuguese authorities as they plan and deploy security measures for the crowds of faithful who are making the pilgrimage and arriving at the Fátima sanctuary Wednesday and Thursday.

The followers are arriving from across Portugal and abroad, and officials are keeping in mind the Mar. 11 train-bombing in neighbouring Spain, perpetrated by Islamic extremists with ties to Al-Qaeda, ostensibly in retaliation for the Spanish government’s support for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

The Portuguese government of conservative Prime Minister José Manuel Durao Barroso also backed the invasion.

For Thursday’s Virgin of Fátima celebration, a joint security effort is under way, coordinated by the public security police. It is a massive operation comparable only to the visit from Pope John Paul II in 2000. Similar plans are in the making for the international rock music festival to take place in Portugal at the end of the month and for the European football cup here in June and July.

The Catholic bishop of Leiría-Fátima, monsignor Serafim Ferreira e Silva, in an effort to instil calm told the communications media Wednesday that an attack in Fátima “would make no sense,” and explained that “the sanctuary has made great efforts in terms of inter-religious dialogue.”

All of the pilgrims consulted by IPS as they began arriving Wednesday, some having walked as many as 300 km, said they did not fear possible terrorist attacks during the celebration.

As volunteer nurses treated her blistered feet in a first-aid tent outside the Fátima sanctuary, Ana Cristina da Conceição told IPS she is convinced that “another terrorist attack is impossible.”

“We are protected by the sacred mantle of Our Lady of Fátima, and furthermore, the Islamic fundamentalists would never attack the Virgin because she has the same name as the daughter of the prophet Mohammed,” she said.

Fátima has been one of the biggest public attractions since even before 1930, when the Vatican recognised the Virgin’s appearance to the shepherds as a miracle and authorised her inclusion in Catholic liturgy.

The agnostics never called into doubt the word of the three shepherd children, but even today their version of the story is that in this part of Portugal, very isolated at the time, the wife of a British engineer building a road nearby decided to take a walk through the countryside and came across the two girls and one boy who were keeping watch over a flock of sheep.

Regardless of anyone’s personal beliefs about what happened in May 1917, the Virgin of Fátima has been established as an emblem of Portugal in the rest of the world, alongside explorer Vasco da Gama, former president Mario Soares, considered the father of Portuguese democracy, and football players Eusebio da Silva Ferreira (retired) and Luis Figo (with Spain’s Real Madrid).

Fátima and football remain the two “Fs” capable of mobilising multitudes in Portugal.

According to the municipal government of Leiría, seat of the region where Fátima is located, 120 km north of Lisbon, some 1,500 police and members of other security forces will participate in maintaining order and protecting the estimated 250,000 to 300,000 people of various nationalities arriving for the event.

Some 30,000 of these believers began their pilgrimage to this religious site several days ago from diverse points in Portugal and Spain.

The only incident in the 87-history of the Virgin of Fátima occurred the dramatic night of May 12, 1982, during the first papal visit, when Spanish priest Juan Fernández Krohn attacked John Paul II with a sable, injuring him in the right leg. The priest was declared to be mentally imbalanced, and was sentenced to six and a half years in prison.

Although the number of visitors expected this year is much fewer than the one million who crowded the plaza during the papal visit, the potential for a terrorist attack has prompted the government to mobilise practically the same size security force.

The Portuguese authorities have not officially admitted the existence of any concrete threat, but have announced strict security measures for the Eurocup, in which the 16 qualifying European football teams will compete for the championship, Jun. 12-Jul. 4..

Extraordinary security measures are also planned for the May 28-Jun. 6 “Rock in Rio” festival, normally held in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, but moved this year to Lisbon.

In April, a Lisbon newspaper received an unsigned communiqué in Arabic, Spanish and Portuguese, accompanying a video with verses of the Koran, announcing that during the European football cup this year, “Portugal will be punished” because of the unconditional support of Prime Minister Durao Barroso for the U.S. policy in Iraq.

Repeated statements from radical Islamic groups calling for a holy war against the “crusades” in the Middle East and against the “infidels” anywhere in the world “increases security concerns wherever there are large crowds of Christians, and Fátima is one of the biggest in the world for those who profess the Catholic faith,” international analyst Augusto Vilela told IPS.

The strict police controls include the identification of the street vendors from northern Africa, particularly Moroccans, who despite their own Muslim faith have no problem competing elbow-to-elbow with others in selling religious Christian souvenirs in the idyllic rural town of Fátima, not only during the May celebration, but all year round.

Police chief Lopes Martins declined to reveal the exact number of police who will take part in the security operation, but said there would be enough, and that many of the agents would be on hand but relatively “invisible… due to the peaceful nature of the religious event.”

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