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CUBANS HEAD EN MASSE TO SHRINE

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Tens of thousands of Cubans, some dragging themselves along the ground, some crawling through the dust on their knees, are flocking to the shrine of Saint Lazarus outside Havana.

The shrine at El Rincon on the southern outskirts of the capital is a major place of worship for Roman Catholics and worshipers of the Afro-Cuban "santeria" faith, which combines Christian saints with African Yoruba deities.Some devotees make all or part of the journey in terrible discomfort, fulfilling promises made to Lazarus or his santeria equivalent Babalu-Aye, often in thanks or hope for the recovery of a sick person or solution of another problem.

One young woman crawling through the crowd on her stomach after midnight was being urged along by a companion lighting her route with a candle, despite the fact she was leaving a trail of sweat along the route.

A man heaved himself slowly backwards on his back, his journey made harder by several large stones roped to each foot, while another was bent under the weight of a large cross. A young mother crawled on all fours with her sick son on her shoulders.

Those making the hardest journeys were frequently slumped in the middle of the road, faces set with determination and pale with exhaustion, relatives and friends urging them not to give up.

The crowds pouring along the route were huge around midnight and for a morning service led by Cuba's new Catholic cardinal, archbishop of Havana Jaime Ortega.

For some young men the pilgrimage was more of a festive walk.

And amid the recent more relaxed approach to private enterprise on the communist-ruled island, people sold items such as sandwiches, oranges, candles, plastic flowers and images of Lazarus from small roadside stalls.

Major Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter are not officially celebrated in Cuba. But the Dec. 17 pilgrimage has continued and traditionally draws big crowds.