DONGLU, China (AFP) - Police surrounded a Chinese village on Sunday to prevent pilgrims from joining a Catholic parade to honour the Virgin Mary, who locals say appeared in the village a century ago.
Authorities placed roadblocks on main roads leading to the small village of Donglu, just a few hours drive from Beijing, where locals - an estimated 90 percent of whom are Catholic - are fiercely devoted to Mary.
"Police don't let any outsiders into the village during May... it's been like that for years," a local believer who identified herself as Maria said, standing by the towering spires of a church which dominates the village's skyline.
Donglu's Catholics believe that the Virgin Mary appeared in the sky above the village in 1900, terrifying attackers from the anti-foreign Boxer uprising, which also targeted Catholics, into an awestruck retreat.
"More than 100 years ago, everyone felt the power of Mary to protect the village, and each generation has passed on the story," Maria said.
A police lock-down lasting the entire month of May, when celebrations dedicated to Mary reach their peak, was established in the 1990s, after tens of thousands of pilgrims from China and abroad gathered in the village, locals say.
AFP reporters - who entered the village through tiny back lanes, before being briefly detained and escorted out by local police - saw officers sitting in blue tents erected as checkpoints on access roads.
Red banners calling on locals to "Carry out religious activities in a lawful and orderly manner" flapped in the breeze.
But celebrations dedicated to Mary continued despite the restrictions.
Around 200 Catholics, including young children, gathered outside the village church on Sunday to prepare for a parade.
Locals waved bright red flags while women in yellow silk dresses decorated with crosses climbed aboard a pick-up truck loaded with red drums, and two men held a large picture of Mary and Jesus in front of the crowd.
"The authorities are afraid that we will cause trouble, but the vast majority of Catholics would never cause trouble," an 81-year-old local surnamed La said.
China has repeatedly said that its citizens enjoy freedom of religious belief, but Catholic rights groups have for years reported police repression of "underground" churches, which operate without government approval.
Experts estimate that there are around 12 million Catholics in China, with about half worshipping in state-sanctioned congregations, and the rest belonging to unofficial churches.