Portugal says Pope Benedict XVI to Visit Fatima

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LISBON, Portugal - Pope Benedict XVI will visit the Fatima shrine in Portugal next year, the Portuguese president's office announced Thursday.
     
The pope will preside at the shrine's annual May 13 ceremonies, a brief statement said. Three shepherd children claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary during apparitions in Fatima in 1917, the first time on May 13 of that year.
     
Fatima, a small town 70 miles (110 kilometers) north of the capital Lisbon, attracts an estimated 6 million visitors each year. Pope Benedict's visit will be the fifth by a pontiff. Paul VI was the first, in 1967.
     
The Roman Catholic church in Portugal, meanwhile, is fighting political challenges to its teachings. The Socialist government passed a law allowing abortion two years ago. Portugal has parliamentary elections Sunday, and the Socialists say if they are re-elected they will propose a law to permit gay marriage.
     
The three Fatima children - Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco, who were cousins - said the Virgin Mary appeared to them on the 13th day of each month and predicted events, such as world wars, the reemergence of Christianity in Russia and one that Church officials say foretold the 1981 attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II.
     
The last visit to Fatima by the head of the Roman Catholic Church was by John Paul nine years ago.
     
John Paul, who died in 2005, believed the Virgin of Fatima saved his life after he was shot by a Turkish gunman in St. Peter's Square in 1981. The attack, on May 13, coincided with the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima, and John Paul credited the Virgin's intercession for his survival.
     
In 2000, John Paul visited Fatima to beatify Jacinta and Francisco. It was his third visit to the shrine in 18 years.
     
Last year, Pope Benedict XVI put Lucia, who died in 2005 at age 97, on a fast-track to possible sainthood.
     
The customary waiting period before beginning the process that can lead to sainthood is five years after a person's death. Lucia, who became a nun, was granted the same waiver as was given in the cases of Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II.
     
Other possible trips by Pope Benedict XVI next year include Malta and Britain.
     
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.

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