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The service in Sumuleu Ciuc, located in Romania’s Transylvania region, is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and dates back more than 450 years. Participants were urged to observe a number of coronavirus-control measures, including wearing masks.

But for the tens of thousands of Catholics in the overwhelmingly Christian Orthodox country who attended in droves, resuming their faith’s biggest national event was a welcome step towards normality.

“After a difficult period, we can celebrate together again this year!” Csaba Borboly, council president in the predominantly ethnic Hungarian Harghita County, wrote online.

Many pilgrims wore traditional ethnic clothing, some arrived on horseback, and some traveled long distances by foot to a hilltop shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Shortly after midday, Bishop Laszlo Kerekes of Tharros celebrated mass with the sea of worshipers.

The event organisers also saw the massive religious gathering which in recent years also attracted thousands of foreign pilgrims, as an opportunity to tackle the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

A no-appointment-needed “vaccination marathon” was set up near the Franciscan Church for those wishing to receive a vaccine against Covid-19.

“We wanted to create a vaccination opportunity to put an end to the pandemic for good,” Tar Gyongyi, executive manager of the health directorate in Harghita County, told Associated Press.

“This pandemic is like a dragon. Until we cut off all of its heads, it will not go away,” he said.

Among the people who rolled up their sleeves for a shot was an influential Franciscan monk, Csaba Bojte. He runs a foundation for homeless orphans, and last year he suffered from a severe case of Covid-19.

“I was in the hospital,” said Bojte, who received his vaccine after mass. “I have buried quite a few people who died of this disease. I trust our doctors and I hope this will benefit my health and I hope we can defeat this pandemic.”

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