Medjugorje (Bosnia and Herzegovina) (AFP) - Pope Francis is dismissive of claims that the Virgin Mary appears daily in Medjugorje, but Danielle Pitau is convinced that her pilgrimage to the small Bosnian town cured her of cancer.
"Whoever tells me that nothing happens in Medjugorje, I tell them to come here and try it," the 72-year-old Belgian woman said.
She told AFP that "a warmth did not stop rising" inside her stomach on her first visit to the town 11 years ago, which followed surgery on a bladder tumour and a pessimistic diagnosis from doctors.
In June 1981, six Bosnian teenagers said they had witnessed the appearance of the Virgin in the southern town near the Croatian border.
She continues to "appear" to three of them daily, and to the other three once a year.
With some of them now living between Medjugorje, Italy and the United States, they proclaim themselves "seers" and say the Virgin is transmitting them messages, which they publish for the edification of believers on the multi-language website, medjugorje.hr.
- 'Crown of stars' -
In a rare interview to local media, one of the self-declared seers, Vicka Ivankovic-Mijatovic, described Mary's visitations, which occur "every day at 6:40 pm".
"Before her arrival, a light appears three times. This is the sign that she is coming."
The Virgin "has a grey dress, a white veil, a crown of stars, blue eyes, black hair, pinkish cheeks. She is floating on a grey cloud and does not step on the ground," said Ivankovic-Mijatovic, now 52.
In early March, Mirjana Dragicevic-Soldo, another one of the six "seers", transmitted a message from the Virgin calling on people to "live with love for the word of (her) Son, so that the world can be different".
Every year, some 2.5 million pilgrims visit Medjugorje, according to Polish archbishop Henryk Hoser. Many of those descend in June to mark the 1981 visions.
In February Hoser was sent by the Vatican to analyse their "needs" and "acquire a deeper knowledge of the pastoral situation".
Home to around 2,300 people, who are mostly ethnic Croat Roman Catholics, the town is nestled among hills, including the mount on which the Virgin is said to appear.
Pilgrims arrive by the coach-load and linger in front of the twin-towered Saint Jacob's Church, while others wander between religious souvenir shops, guesthouses, hotels and restaurants.
Some climb the rocky hill known for the apparitions, from which a white stone statue of the Virgin looks over the town. Visions have also been reported in other locations.
- Prospered -
Medjugorje has prospered through its reputation for miracles, with its population more than doubling since 1991 -- just before the start of the ethnic conflict that devastated Bosnia, which remains largely impoverished.
But it is difficult to estimate how much wealth has been generated.
Local business owners are suspected of not reporting accurate visitor numbers for tax reasons, despite efforts to crack down on tax evasion in 2013 and 2016.
According to local media reports, the guesthouse owned by one of the "seers" was targeted in particular.
"From a religious point of view Medjugorje is very fertile land," Hoser said cautiously in April, adding that the work of the parish, managed by Franciscan priests, was "in line with new evangelisation".
But in the nearby town of Mostar, Bishop Ratko Peric said Medjugorje's fame was based on a falsehood.
"These are not authentic appearances of the Virgin Mary," he said in February, dismissing the 47,000 alleged apparitions since June 1981.
- Vatican probe -
The Vatican, which is not opposed to the pilgrimages, has not revealed the conclusion of an enquiry conducted between 2010 and 2014 into the Medjugorje sightings.
But recent irony-tinged declarations from Pope Francis suggest the probe threw up doubts over the issue.
The pontiff said earlier this month that the woman, whom the seers say they see, "is not the mother of Jesus".
"But it is obvious, who thinks the Virgin would say: 'Come to this place tomorrow at this time and I'll give a message to a seer'?" the pontiff said.
However he was more circumspect about the 1981 visions, which he didn't immediately reject.
"On the original apparitions, the ones the children had, the enquiry says, more or less, that investigations need to continue," he said.
- 'Will accept it' -
The Pope's comments were not well received in Medjugorje, where one local priest, who asked to remain anonymous, said they "create trouble".
"He should have looked deeply into his soul to know whether such a declaration would do good or bad," said another Bosnian believer, who also refused to give his name.
Julita Buzekova, a 46-year-old Polish pilgrim, said many people continued to visit the site, believing it a special place.
"The pope will eventually accept it," she said, on her way up the hill.
Since June is the month when many believers visit Medjugorje, it is still too early to assess the impact of the Pope's scepticism.
"The church will always be full. But things are not so good as far as tourism is concerned, after an excellent period from 2005 to 2008," said Mladen, a restaurant waiter, who blamed the economic crisis for the decline.
Father Francesco, 53, brings several groups of pilgrims every year from Paris.
"It is a place of grace, of conversion. Here, Mary is going to unite Catholics, Orthodox people and Muslims," he said.