Thousands make pilgrimage as Venezuela unveils statue of Maria Lionza

Caracas, Venezuela - Several thousand Venezuelans made an annual pilgrimage to pay homage to the Indian goddess Maria Lionza, while a refurbished statue of the revered religious figure was unveiled after a two-year restoration effort.

Followers of the religious sect walked through sugarcane fields to a river near the Sorte Mountains, about 180 miles (290 kilometers) west of Caracas, to perform rituals after dusk Wednesday. The glow of candles lit up the group, including Reinaldo Pinto, who said he acts as a "medium" through which believers communicate with the goddess and summon her "court" of deities.

"We come to make offerings to the queen for fulfilled promises," said Pinto, 37, who wore only a pair of red shorts and beaded necklaces.

The religious traditions centered around Maria Lionza are hundreds of years old and draw on elements of Afro-Caribbean and indigenous rituals, as well as Catholicism. Believers often ask for protection from witchcraft or thank her for curing a loved one's illness.

The pilgrimage was held as Venezuelans in Caracas got their first glimpse of the newly-restored 7-meter (23-foot) Maria Lionza statue. The state was removed in 2004 from its home in the middle of a busy Caracas highway after it split apart at the waist and fell backward to face the sky.

"Those who follow the cult have been in contact with us, and I think they'll be satisfied with what we've done," said Jose Luis Beauperthruy, a civil engineer who headed the restoration at Venezuela's Central University.

Crafted in the early 1950s by sculptor Alejandro Colina, the statue was placed on the divider in 1953 by the dictator Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez, who actively promoted the establishment of patron saints throughout Venezuela. As a faithful Maria Lionza devotee, he hoped to legitimize his regime with the replica of the naked woman sitting astride a wild tapir.

Repairs by specialists should give 55-year-old statue another 100 years or more of life, Beauperthruy told reporters. The statue, which has a concrete outer shell atop a steel footing, has long been a national icon.

He said the statue had fractured at the waist in a spot where humidity had seeped in, and that the problem had been fixed by reinforcing the torso with carbon fiber.

Legends about Maria Lionza vary, but she is said to have lived in the 1500s and had supernatural powers. Some say she was the daughter of an Indian chief, while others say her parents were an Indian princess and a Spanish conquistador.

Many believe that's why adherents make an annual pilgrimage to Maria Lionza's mountain home on Oct. 12 — the day Christopher Columbus first set foot on Venezuelan soil in 1498, setting the stage for the mixing of European, African and Amerindian races.

The Roman Catholic Church disapproves of the religion, which has some similarities to Santeria, but has long since abandoned its attempts to suppress it.

Cult followers in Caracas who can't make the long trip to the mountains often make much shorter pilgrimages: quick dashes through several lanes of traffic to the highway divider, where a rough reproduction of the statue was placed several months after the original broke.

Offerings of flowers, liquor or coins are commonly left as offerings.

University and city officials are at odds over the original statue's future destination.

The university, which owns the statue, insists it should be returned to the highway. City authorities, citing pollution and vibrations from passing vehicles as factors that caused the statue to collapse, argue it should be moved to a plaza.