Empty of pilgrims, Bosnia's miracle town falls victim to the virus
Ever since the Virgin Mary was said to appear before six teenagers on a hill in Bosnia four decades ago, pilgrims have flocked to the town of Medjugorje, eager to witness a miracle.
Until now. With Easter upon us, the Catholic shrine normally packed with thousands of people is deserted as the coronavirus pandemic freezes travel around the globe.
The doors of St. James church are shuttered and the Franciscan priests who manage the site are in confinement.
Several nuns and priests infected by the virus and are now isolating in a nearby convent that has been transformed into a quarantine zone.
The controversial shrine, whose apparitions have not been authenticated by the Vatican, has built a reputation among the faithful for supposed miraculous healing powers.
But in the midst of a global health emergency, few are still around to pray for cures.
Rodica Popa, a 57-year-old Romanian, is a lone pilgrim in the deserted square outside the church, where she approaches a white statue of Mary.
She holds a cross and takes to steps back to say a prayer, palms tipped towards the blue sky.
"It's very strange," she told AFP, adding that she has visited the site annually for the past 20 years.
Popa said she decided to extend her stay when countries started closing down their borders to halt the spread of COVID-19 that has killed over 94,000 people globally.
Since then, Medjugorje has turned into a ghost town.
"I came a month ago. After a while I noticed the transformation. I didn't understand what was happening and I asked someone who told me about the coronavirus," she said.
The Madonna first "visited" six youths on a rocky hill above the small town in June 1981.
It is said she continues to appear to three of them daily, and to the others once a year.
Pope Francis, however, is not convinced. He has previously doubted the sightings, saying the woman they claim to see "is not the mother of Jesus".
The Vatican has conducted several investigations into the apparitions, most recently between 2010 and 2014, but without reaching any definitive conclusions.
Yet Catholic authorities do not discourage the pilgrimages.
In 2018 the Pope appointed a Polish archbishop, Henryk Hoser, to provide pastoral care to the 2.5 million visitors who flock to the site annually.
In recent years, their number has been "constantly increasing," said Jakov Gaspar, a gardener who tends to flower beds in the church square.
"Medjugorje has a force that attracts people. This ordeal will certainly bear fruit," added the 59-year-old.
'Worse than the war'
Nestled in southern Bosnia's mountains, the town of 2,300 is home mainly to ethnic Croat Roman Catholics.
Compared to other poor towns in the area, Medjugorje has prospered from a constant stream of visitors.
But today the streets are empty while religious souvenir shops, hotels and restaurants are closed.
Frane Jerkovic, a 57-year-old owner of a boarding house and hotel, said the situation is even worse than during Bosnia's 1990s war, when the town was largely spared the violence that claimed 100,000 lives.
"At that time the roads to Europe were open, pilgrims continued to come from all over the world," he said.
As the church bells tolled on a recent evening, Gino Di Grano, an Italian who has been living in the town for over a decade, found rare solitude in the square, where he knelt down to pray in front of the church's closed doors.
"The best thing we can do now, as Our Lady has said many times, is to be with our God Jesus," he told AFP.
"And I am sure that he will help us very soon to get out of this situation."
In the meantime, the church's masses are being broadcast online.
According to the site's official website, an April 5 ceremony attracted more than three million viewers.