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Fatima has been one of the biggest Catholic shrines in the world since 1937, when it is believed the Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children as they were tending their family's sheep.

They had the same vision on the 13th of every month from May to October of that year, when a crowd of 70, 000 gathered on the site and witnessed an inexplicable spectacle that became known as the "Miracle of the Sun". The sun spun like a ball in the sky, a phenomenon that led millions to believe in the children's story that at first had been greeted with much skepticism.

The government had accused the Church of fabricating the story to revive its flagging influence, while the Church was afraid to acknowledge the event, fearing it was a hoax. The children, then about 10 years old, were arrested and interrogated, but refused to change their story.

They stated the Virgin revealed three secrets (the so-called "three secrets of Fatima"), which are said to have foretold World War II and Russian communism. The third secret was only told to the pope, and was finally revealed in May of 2000 by Pope John Paul II, who stated in Fatima that it foretold the attempt on his life in 1981. Francisco and Jacinta, who died of a flu epidemic soon after the apparitions, were beatified by John Paul II on that day, while the third child, Lucia, lived in a Carmelite convent in Coimbra until her death in February of 2005.

Monument to Christ in Fatima There are visits to Fatima throughout the year, but it is on May 13th and October 13th that it receives the most pilgrims from all over the world, many of them making their way to the basilica on their knees. The vast neoclassical basilica was built in 1953 in recognition of the importance of the site to pilgrims, with a 65m (213 ft) tower and contains the tombs of the three children. It is located in a square twice the size of St. Peter's Square in Rome, capable of holding a million people.

In a corner of the square, on the site of the original visions, stands the Chapel of the Apparitions, a simple modern structure with a figure of the Virgin inside holding the bullet extracted from Pope John Paul II after his assassination attempt in 1981.

A Wax Museum recounts the story of the apparitions in 28 scenes made of wax figures.

There's a daily torchlit procession at dusk which gives the site a constant atmosphere of spirituality, despite the large number of souvenir shops around it.



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