Worshippers avoid Madrid ritual after statue-kissing banned

Emmanuelle MICHEL
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The annual feet-kissing ritual at Madrid's Medinaceli Basilica normally draws vast queues where worshippers can wait for up to 12 hours to get in

Was it fear of coronavirus? Or disappointment at not being able to kiss the feet of a wooden statue of Christ with a reputation for working miracles? At Madrid's Medinaceli Basilica, worshippers were scarce on Friday for an annual ritual that normally draws thousands.

Earlier this week, the Catholic order in charge of this church in the heart of the Spanish capital said pilgrims would be allowed neither to "kiss nor touch the statue of Jesus of Medinaceli" to avoid coronavirus infections which by Friday had reached 365 cases and caused five deaths in Spain.

Such restrictions have never been imposed in nearly a century of the tradition which takes place every first Friday in March. Pilgrims come from across Spain to kiss the feet of the life-size 17th-century statue of Christ and make three wishes, with tradition holding that at least one is granted.

Popular devotion to the rite is such that some of the faithful even begin queueing a week before the date, camping in the nearby streets, with the entry line on the day itself stretching for many hundreds of metres.

But on Friday morning, only a few dozen people could be seen waiting in the icy wind behind lines of metal barriers erected to corral the non-existent crowds.

"You can normally wait here up to 12 or 14 hours," said Amparo Garcia, looking amazed as she gazed at the largely-empty streets that she said would normally be packed out with pilgrims.

"You have to take precautions, for sure," this 61-year-old Madrid resident told AFP.

"It's fine not to touch (the statue). But the fact that no-one's here? That I've never seen."

As usual, she had come down to the basilica before dawn in the expectation she would have to wait until 6:00 pm to get in.

But in the end, she only had to wait a few minutes before entering the baroque sanctuary to kneel before the wooden icon and petition him for good health after recovering from cancer.

- Sealed with a kiss? -

Inside the church, worshippers -- the vast majority older women -- take turns to pause before the statue whose feet are hidden behind a floor-length purple velvet robe, making the sign of the cross or blowing a kiss before moving on.

One or two were wearing facemasks.

"The reason fewer people are coming is the panic that has been created about coronavirus," said Benjamin Echevarria, the Capuchin friar who runs the church, saying they had repeatedly made clear there were "many ways to express devotion, not just with a kiss".

But for Belen Ibanez, a journalist covering the event for radio Cope, it was more than just virus fears,

"It's the end of a tradition that they loved -- which is in some part devotion but also fetishism," she told AFP.

"And I think part of that tradition is that if you don't kiss the statue, it doesn't work."

- Faith not fear -

Those who are there insist they're not afraid and are not disappointed about being unable to touch the statue that looms over the altar.

"We have come with much faith, we have prayed and we have kissed him symbolically," said Maricarmen Perez Martin, a 54-year-old worshipper who has come from Toledo, a city about 75 kilometres (45 miles) south of Madrid.

"Jesus will certainly stop the virus."

Among the visitors were Spain's former Queen Sofia, mother of King Felipe VI, as well as the mayor of Madrid.

With the coronavirus epidemic causing mounting infections every day, it is likely there will further bans imposed in the run up to Easter when there are a string of ceremonies involving the faithful kissing the feet or hands of statues during Catholic rituals.