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Number of Italian pilgrims to Medjugorje ‘falls by half’ after Pope announces ruling

Pilgrims pray at a statue of Mary in 2011 on Apparition Hill in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Millions of pilgrims flock to Medjugorje every year, but the popular shrine has seen a decline in visitors after Pope Francis said a decision on the apparitions is imminent, the New York Times has reported.

The Pope told reporters on the papal plane returning from Sarajevo that the Vatican was “close to coming to a decision” on the investigation into the claims at Medjugorje.

“For the moment all that is being done is to give guidelines to the bishops,” he said, “but along the lines that will be taken [by the Church].”

The number of Italians – the bulk of pilgrims that visit the Bosnian town – has halved since his announcement, according to the American newspaper.

But Medjugorje supporters have disputed the claim. The website The Medjugorje Message posted statistics suggesting that the number of Holy Communions at the parish church of Medjugorje is increasing.

The site said: “The number of Communions distributed for the months of June and July in 2015 is up on the two previous years, a positive indication that pilgrims numbers are also up.

“As for any dip for the months of July, this is not unusual. The weather is extremely hot during this month and less pilgrims go there because of this.”

An international commission of cardinals, bishops, theologians and other experts, working under the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, was set up in 2010 to investigate the claims of six young people who said Mary had appeared to them daily beginning in 1981.

The Vatican concluded its investigation 18 months ago, after four years of looking into the claims.

The apparent apparitions continue prompting thousands travel to the small town every month to meet the six apparent seers.

For years the local bishop, Bishop Ratko Peric of Mostar-Duvno, has said he believes nothing supernatural is happening in Medjugorje.

Out of those who claimed to have seen the Virgin, nearly all six still live in or near Medjugorje, but they have stopped speaking to the media keeping a low profile since the pope appeared to dismiss their claims in his homily back in June.

In what has been seen as a thinly veiled critique of the claims, Pope Francis joked about “visionaries who can tell us exactly what message Our Lady will be sending at four o’clock this afternoon.”

Until now, the Vatican has not given its official position on the apparitions.

While the Vatican has told all diocese should not organise official pilgrimages, it has said Catholics are free to visit the town and pray there.

“Whatever the verdict turns out to be, this wait is creating a state of uncertainty for the pilgrims, and that affects the season,” said Sante Frigo, an Italian married to a pilgrim guide in Medjugorje, speaking to the New York Times.

“From the point of view of the pilgrimage supply chain it’s been a catastrophe.”

Before the claims of apparitions, the residents just about survived on tobacco plantations and vineyards.

The apparitions, though, have fuelled controversy, mostly due to their duration and regularity.

The Church has recognised other Marian apparitions, such as Lourdes, but no other visions have lasted for quite so long or with such regularity.

The longest apparitions are said to be those in Laus, France, from 1664 to 1718, when Mary appeared to the Dominican sister Benedicta Rencurel.

The Church did not approve them until 2008, 290 years after Sister Benedicta’s death.