BESHWAT, Lebanon — Abandoned wheelchairs and crutches are propped up against the walls in the entry hall, left there for good by believers who say she healed them when no medicine could.
Our Lady of Beshwat, a Christian shrine in eastern Lebanon, has become a popular tourist attraction in the multi-confessional Mediterranean country which plans to boost religious tourism after a bumper tourist season in 2009.
Nada Sardouk, director general of Lebanon’s tourism ministry, stresses the “human and economic importance of boosting religious tourism”.
“We have an incredible wealth of religions,” Sardouk said, referring to the 18 official confessions in Lebanon.
Monasteries, churches and mausoleums abound in Lebanon, which remains a Christian stronghold in the largely Muslim Arab world, although Muslims form the majority of the population of some four million.
The tourism ministry plans to release a film about Lebanon’s many religious sites and a book on 20 roads leading to both Christian and Muslim holy sites.
The book, named “The Paths of Faith”, is to be released at the end of September.
“Tourism in the Bekaa used to end at Baalbeck,” the ancient Roman ruins in the eastern Bekaa Valley, said Marie Kayrouz, who runs a small but tidy souvenir shop outside the Our Lady of Beshwat shrine.
Our Lady of Beshwat has undoubtedly helped boost the number of visitors to Keyrouz’s little shop: the shrine became a popular pilgrimage destination after several testimonies of “miraculous healing” surfaced in 2004.
“She has healed Christians and Muslims and her miracles restored life to the region,” Kayrouz said. “Today, tourists and pilgrims come by the hundreds. We work all year.”
Marie and her husband Yaacoub say Our Lady of Beshwat has brought luck: the state finally began paving the roads of their village of 500 residents and setting up streetlights.
“Without her, we would have had nothing,” said Yaacoub, who runs a restaurant near the shrine.
But Lebanon’s holy sites are not limited to shrines: the country is home to the town of Qana, where Jesus in the Bible turned water into wine.
Lebanon is also home to the hilltop where Jesus and Mary once stood, located in the southern town of Maghdush.
But it is the northern Qadisha Valley, also known as “Wadi Qanubin”, which attracts the largest number of visitors a year.
The valley was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 1998 and remains “a very important historical centre for eastern Christians”, according to Monsignor Samir Mazloum, a Maronite priest who makes pastoral visits to Europe.
The valley’s caves were a sanctuary for the first Christian Maronite refugees fleeing persecution in Syria in the fifth century, and the monasteries were carved straight into the mountain and are barely visible from a distance.
“Even visitors from the Gulf come here,” said Mary, a souvenir saleswoman in the valley. “They like the local produce and can find wine made in the convent, and there are also several restaurants.”
Plans to build a hotel at the entrance are also underway, according to Ferz Tawk, who is in charge of the housing project. “This will allow backpackers to stay several days,” he explained.
“We also encourage villagers to consider starting cottage-like hotels,” Sardouk said.
But popular tourism destinations are not limited to Christian shrines: there are also several Muslim sites, including historic Shiite monuments.
Iranian and Lebanese pilgrims flock to the Khawla bint al-Hussein mausoleum in the eastern city of Baalbek, named after the daughter of a highly revered Shiite Imam.
“Religions should not be a wound, but a blessing,” Sardouk says of her country, which has been plagued by sporadic sectarian fighting for decades.