LOURDES, France (Reuters) - In an unexpected twist of globalization, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and other pilgrims regularly worship at famous Roman Catholic shrines to the Virgin Mary such as Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal.
They drink the holy water, light votive candles and pray fervently to the Madonna for help with life's hardships. Many venerate her like one of their own goddesses, a view that would be a heresy if a Catholic theologian tried to defend it.
Rather than being turned away, the newcomers are free to join the crowds from Ireland, Italy, Spain and other traditionally Catholic countries who flock to Europe's most popular shrines.
In Fatima, the warm welcome they have received has caused an uproar among traditionalist Catholics.
No one can say how many non-Catholics worship at shrines where the Virgin is said to have appeared, but they have become a familiar minority there over the past five to 10 years.
"There are lots of them," Bishop Jacques Perrier of Lourdes told Reuters during Pope John Paul II's visit to the southwestern French "miracle shrine" on August 14-15.
"Their numbers may be small as a percentage of the 6 million pilgrims here each year, but they're big in absolute terms."
The sight of some south Asian women in splendid saris mingling with the European pilgrims is the first hint that reverence for Mary has crossed religious borders.
Standing near the grotto where she was said to have appeared in 1858, two women wearing the Hindu red dot or "bindi" on their foreheads said they prayed daily to the Madonna.
"I come here for peace of mind and heart," said Buvaneswary Palani, a Hindu from southeastern India who now lives in southern France."Gods are the same everywhere," explained her mother Darmavady. "She is like our mother goddess Mariamman."
Catholics revere Mary and believe she can intervene with Jesus to help them, but they do not consider her divine.
Hindu or Buddhist pilgrims could be forgiven for thinking she is, though, when they see the faithful kneeling in silent prayer before her statue or admire the huge mosaic of her that looms over the altar at the Lourdes basilica.
The Virgin also resembles goddesses they venerated back home before moving to Europe.
Tamils in southeastern India and northern Sri Lanka worship a goddess Mariamman who protects villages and wards off disease.
Among the Buddhists of China, Vietnam and other Asian states, the "compassionate Savioress" Kwan Yin offers the maternal love that Catholics find in Mary.
Although Islam teaches there is no god but Allah, folk traditions in some Muslim societies have smuggled in a devotion for saints much like that seen in other religions.
The Koran contains a whole chapter on Mary, far more than the Gospels have on her. In it, Maryam (her Arabic name) is a virgin and Jesus a great prophet but neither is divine.
With its mass pilgrimages, devotion to a mother figure and belief in water with miracle healing powers, Lourdes combines elements familiar to followers of several other faiths.
"In a globalized age, it's normal that Lourdes attracts them," said Patrick Theillier, a physician who heads the Medical Bureau which examines every claim of miracle healing at Lourdes. The bureau has certified only 66 healings as genuine miracles.
FATIMA UNDER FIREPerrier saw no theological problem with pilgrims of other faiths worshiping at a shrine central to Roman Catholicism.
But the line between hospitality to outsiders and blurring of religious borders is close, as Portugal's Fatima shrine to the Virgin has learned.
Traditionalist Catholics are up in arms against the shrine's directors for allegedly being so open to Hindu pilgrims that they let them perform religious rites there.
"They have sinned against God and given scandal to the faithful," thundered the U.S. monthly Catholic Family News. "They allowed Mary to be worshiped as God by pagan apostates."
Fatima's director, Father Luciano Guerro, issued a statement in late June denying that a Hindu pilgrim group led by its own priest had somehow defiled the shrine during a visit in May.
"The priest sang a prayer which lasted a few minutes," he said. "No gesture was made, no rite was performed, on or off the altar." Guerro also denied charges that a new church now being built there would be open to rites from all faiths.
The blurring of religious borders that globalization has brought to Marian shrines has also touched the higher levels of Catholic theology, causing deep concern at the Vatican.
Father Jacques Dupuis, an 80-year-old Belgian Jesuit who spent 20 years in India, has broken new ground in recent years by arguing that God works through many faiths to save all believers.
This contradicts the Catholic position that faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation and even other Christian churches are imperfect paths to that goal.
Challenging that view earned the respected theologian a secretive three-year investigation by the Vatican's stern doctrinal chief, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
The issue calmed in 2001 when Dupuis, under heavy Vatican pressure, issued a statement saying his writings had contained some doctrinal ambiguities. But he has not changed his view."The Holy Spirit is present in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions," he said in a lecture in February. "The diverse paths are conducive to salvation because they have been placed by God Himself."