EL RINCON, Cuba (Reuters Life!) - Some dressed in sackcloth, a few crawling on their hands and knees, thousands of Cubans paid homage on Thursday to a Catholic saint who doubles as a powerful deity in the Afro-Cuban Santeria faith.
The Saint Lazarus pilgrimage is one of the most important religious events on the communist-run island, melding Afro-Cuban faiths with Roman Catholic beliefs that were marginalized for decades after the 1959 revolution.
Devotees of Saint Lazarus, who traditionally wear sackcloth and purple clothing as symbols of repentance, flock to the shrine at a church near the village of El Rincon in the countryside just outside Havana.
Saint Lazarus is associated with helping the sick, and many of the pilgrims go to ask the saint to cure relatives' ailments. Others make long, hard journeys barefoot or haul themselves along the ground on their hands and knees.
"I was in prison," said Lazaro, 21, as he crawled along the packed road leading to the shrine. "I made a promise to Saint Lazarus because I wanted to get out. Now I'm fulfilling it."
Several thousand people walked to the church during the morning clutching bunches of mauve gladioli, pink bougainvillea and fat cigars to leave as offerings to the saint, who also symbolizes the deity Babalu-Aye in the Afro-Cuban Santeria faith.
Experts explain this fusion of Santeria and Christian figures by saying that African slaves in Cuba originally pretended to worship the Catholic saints of their Spanish masters while secretly paying homage to their own deities.
As they arrived at the steps of the church, some of the worshipers wept, picking grit from sores on their knees. One man lay face down yards (meters) from the door, clutching a large rock he had dragged with him.
Cubans have become more and more open about public shows of faith since a 1998 trip to the island by the late Pope John Paul that ended decades of atheism.
December 17 is the day to pay homage to Saint Lazarus, but increasing numbers of devotees are visiting the shrine at other times of the year, said Ana Perez Gimenez, 61, who has been tending the church donations box for eight years.
"There are fewer people who come on their knees but people keep on coming," she said. "Sometimes the Mass is so full you can't get in. People's faith has really grown."
Editing by Xavier Briand