Holiday pilgrims banned in Paraguay church for first time in century

Pigeons are pictured on an empty street next to the Caacupe Cathedral before the Virgin of Caacupe Day, during the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Caacupe, outside of Asuncion, Paraguay

Paraguay people will honor their saint this year online or in community parishes, as COVID limitations rules restrict an annual pilgrimage to a sacred cathedral for the first time in over a hundred years.

The beautiful white Caacupé Cathedral, surrounded by palm trees, is generally seen as the South American nation’s religious capital. It has drawn nearly a million visitors annually around the holidays for more than a century, culminating on Dec. 8.

But this year, officials in Paraguay have largely restricted access to Caacupé, 50 kilometers (30 miles) outside the capital Asuncion, to stave off a spike in contagions.

Paraguay, widely praised for quickly and decisively containing the virus while other Latin American countries saw uncontrolled outbreaks, has nonetheless seen a rebound in cases in recent weeks, prompting authorities to tighten restrictions around the pilgrimage.

The Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 was the last time the festival, which sanctifies the Virgin of Caacupé, had been called off, said researcher Fabian Chamorro. Even during political revolutions, a few of the faithful managed to make the pilgrimage, he noted.

“Caacupé is a miracle that transcends religion,” Chamorro said. “There are people who go for entertainment, and it is also a tourist event.”

The cathedral was enclosed by empty sidewalks and steps this week, as police blocked nearby streets, a stark contrast to years past when crowds overtook the city’s bountiful restaurants and shops.

“It’s frustrating. They could have allowed it to proceed in moderation. I think it is too excessive,” said Ruth Valdez, a 21-year-old Paraguayan student who has often made the pilgrimage.

Paraguay registered nearly 88,000 cases and 1,853 deaths linked to COVID-19 as of Sunday.

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