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Pope Benedict says giant Mass at Fatima shrine

Pope Benedict XVI to celebrate the annual mass at the Fatima shrine
Up to half a million people attended the Mass held by the Pope

Up to half a million people have attended an open-air Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI at the Catholic shrine of Fatima in Portugal.

The Church said the crowd was a message of support for the Pope, who is marking the 93rd anniversary of the Virgin Mary's reported apparitions there.

The Pope is currently on a four-day visit to the country.

On Tuesday, he blamed the Catholic sex abuse scandal on "sin within" the Church, and not outside persecution.

"As far as the crisis and scandals are concerned, I think that the people wanted to show that they can distinguish between exceptions and the vast majority of their priests," Portuguese episcopal spokesman Manuel Morujao told the AFP news agency.

AT THE SCENE
David Willey
By David Willey, BBC News, Fatima

In Fatima the Pope has shown he retains the support and the loyalty of the vast majority of Catholics despite the paedophile priest scandals.

The pontiff appeared buoyed up by the size of the huge and enthusiastic crowd of pilgrims from many countries who gathered in front of the basilica dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima.

"I have come to Fatima to pray, in union with Mary and so many pilgrims, for our human family, afflicted as it is by various ills and sufferings," Benedict told the crowd.

"There's been a certain generalisation and the Pope has even been accused of a cover-up," he said.

After the open-air Mass Thursday, the pope told Catholic social workers that abortion and gay marriage were "insidious and dangerous threats to the common good", AP reports.

His remarks come as Portugal is set to legalise gay marriage. The country decriminalised abortion in 2007.

Journey on knees

Fatima is one of the most popular Christian shrines in Europe.

The chapel there is built on the site where three shepherd children claimed to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary in 1917.

The site was also popularised by the late Pope John Paul II, who visited three times, believing it was Our Lady of Fatima who helped save him from an attempted assassination in 1981.

On Wednesday, Pope Benedict prayed in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary, who wears a gold and silver crown in which his predecessor placed the bullet which nearly killed him.

"It is a profound consolation to know that you are crowned not only with the silver and gold of our joys and hopes, but also with the 'bullet' of our anxieties and sufferings," he said.

Of the many pilgrims present at Thursday's Mass, many from around the world, tens of thousands had come by foot from across the country.

Many travelled the last few hundred metres on their knees, as a sign of gratitude to the Virgin.

Maria, a 47-year-old florist, had walked about 220 km (135 miles) from her hometown of Castelo de Paiva.

"I have done this pilgrimage for 22 years because my daughter was at the doors of death and Our Lady granted me the miracle of saving her," she said.



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