MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Crowds thronged Mexico's holiest Catholic shrine on Friday in one of the world's biggest regular pilgrimages, with many of the faithful seeking spiritual support as the economy slips toward recession.
Streams of people from across Mexico and as far away as the United States, worshiped in front of a centuries-old cloak emblazoned with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is said to have appeared to a 16th-century Indian peasant in December 1531.
Many walked for days carrying images of the dark-skinned virgin on their backs to pray at the giant basilica in Mexico City for health, forgiveness of their sins and, as Mexico's economy slows, help to find jobs and money.
"I am hoping the virgin will help my husband find a job," said Margarita Lopez as she led her two small children through the crowd toward the giant basilica. "He's in the United States and has been out of work for two months."
Prospects for Mexico's economy have dimmed sharply with the deepening recession in the United States. The country sends about 80 percent of its exports to its neighbor to the north and money sent home by millions of migrant workers there provides a critical cash lifeline for many impoverished Mexican families.
Economists who were optimistic that Mexico could skirt a recession now fret that a deep downturn may be difficult to avoid.
A river of mostly poor people poured into the shrine from the early morning. Some crawled the trash-strewn final stretch on their knees past troupes of twirling dancers decked out in Aztec garb.
Church and municipal leaders expect several million people to make the pilgrimage in the days up to and including Friday and claim the basilica is the second most visited Catholic church in the world after St Peter's in Rome.
More than 2 million Muslims attended the Haj in Mecca this year, a lower number than usual after the Saudi Arabian government cracked down on pilgrims attending the event without permits.
Despite the huge crowds in Mexico City, vendors grumbled that business was slow.
"They're all looking but no one is buying," said Ramon Martinez, who runs a stall selling religious pictures, disposable cameras and snacks.
"By this time last year I had sold a lot more," he said before rushing up to an old school bus festooned with flowers and pictures of the virgin and the pope to show his wares to newly arrived pilgrims.
The pilgrimage to the basilica has been an annual event since the late 17th century. The Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have appeared to a peasant named Juan Diego in 1531 on a hilltop which had once been a shrine to an ancient Aztec goddess.
After Juan Diego told a bishop of his vision, the virgin's image later appeared on his cloak, according to legend. The event was key in converting Mexico to Catholicism.
The humble woodcutter was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002 in an effort by the Vatican to reach out to Latin American believers.
Additional reporting by Alistair Bell, editing by Vicki Allen