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Friday, 12 May, 2000, 12:24 GMT 13:24 UK
Children who saw a vision
1917 photograph: Lucia Santos, 10, Francisco Marto, 9, and Jacinta Marto, 7
Lucia Santos (left) with cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto
The cult of Our Lady of Fatima started in 1917 when three children, tending sheep in a field at Cova da Iria near Fatima in central Portugal, saw a shining figure in an oak tree.

Ten-year-old Lucia dos Santos and her younger cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marta said the vision told them she had come from heaven and they must return at the same time on the 13th day of the month for the next five months.

Saintly progress
13 May 1917
Children see apparition
13 July 1917
Children receive three-part "secret"
13 October 1917
50,000 join children for sixth and last vision
13 May 1981
Pope survives assassination bid
13 May 1982
Papal thanksgiving at Fatima
13 May 2000
Beatification ceremony
On the last day, 13 October, tens of thousands of pilgrims were in attendance and many claimed that long illnesses were cured and the blind were restored to sight.

The Virgin is said to have imparted to the children a message or secret in three-parts, including a horrifying vision of hell and prophecies foretelling World War II and the fall of Communism in Russia.

The third so-called secret was passed to the Vatican by Lucia in the 1940s and is thought to be apocalyptic in nature. But it has never been divulged beyond the Pope and an inner circle of advisors.

The Church was uneasy at first with the rapidly growing cult and authorised it only in 1929.

Then a grandiose sanctuary was built in Fatima to welcome pilgrims, with the encouragement of the ultra-conservative Salazar dictatorship.

Popular cult

Every year, on the 13th of the month from May to October, services and candlelight processions are held, attended by hundreds of thousands of Portuguese and foreign devotees who come to fulfil pledges made when a loved one recovers from sickness, or to pray for the Virgin's help.

Many travel on foot for miles, and some make a point of covering the last few yards on their knees.

The eyes of millions of Catholics will be on Fatima on Saturday when Pope John Paul II beatifies Francisco and Jacinta Marta who both died in childhood from influenza.

The Basilica of Fátima, Portigal
The Basilica of Fatima was built to welcome pilgrims
Lucia is still alive, aged 93, and is a Carmelite nun, living in a monastery near Coimbra in central Portugal since 1948.

The Portuguese authorities are expecting anything up to a million people - equivalent to one tenth of Portugal's population - to crowd into the sanctuary for the Pope's visit.

The square where the ceremonies will take place holds 400,000, so many will have to follow it on giant screens set up around the sanctuary.

Over the years, thousands of people have testified to miraculous cures that they say are thanks to the intercession of the two children, and which could support the case for their canonisation.

Papal devotee

But it was only in 1999 that the complex process by which the Vatican ponders such candidates came to a conclusion.

Wax images signify pilgrims' miracle cures
Traditionally, children have not been beatified or canonised because they were not thought to have the maturity to possess the heroic virtues necessary for sainthood.

But the rules were changed by the current Pope - with the children of Fatima particularly in mind - to include those who had lived their faith with deep commitment.

The Pope first visited Fatima in 1982, to give thanks for his survival of an assassination attempt exactly a year earlier, on the anniversary of the first vision.


He is known to believe Our Lady of Fatima deflected the shots fired by the Turkish gunman, Mehmet Ali Agca.

"The man who shot him was a professional killer, had a good weapon and was only three metres away," points out Aura Miguel, Vatican correspondent for Radio Renascenca, Portugal's Catholic broadcaster.

A rosary prayer during mass at the shrine
"When the Pope woke up in hospital, his secretary reminded him of the coincidence of the dates, and from that moment we can follow the steps of his wanting to accomplish what Our Lady asked of the children.

"There is a strong link between the events at Fatima and this Pope."

One of the known prophecies concerned Russia, which the Virgin is said to have warned the children would "spread its errors" unless her requests were followed.

The children knew no geography and no history and are said to have believed the prophecy referred to one of their sheep.

Only in 1984, Miguel notes, when John Paul II did as the Virgin had asked - consecrating Eastern Europe "to her immaculate heart" - did Mikhail Gorbachev become Soviet leader and Perestroika begin.

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