Strait open for pilgrimage

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 April, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 April, 2000, 12:00am

A group of 45 Taiwanese pilgrims arrived at Meizhou Island off Fujian province to pay homage to a deity after Taiwan authorities eased decades-old cross-strait shipping restrictions.

The group, in six fishing boats, left Taiwan's Yilan county on Saturday afternoon for a 20-hour journey to Meizhou, believed to be the birthplace of Matsu, Goddess of the Sea.

Xinhua reported the pilgrims were warmly received by the board of directors of the Matsu Temple. They also planned to visit other temples in Putian city, Fujian.

Transport Ministry officials in Taipei said restrictions were relaxed following demand for cross-strait religious exchanges. It has allowed the chartering of foreign-registered vessels to ferry Taiwanese from Taichung in Taiwan to Meizhou via a third port, either in Hong Kong or Japan's Ishigaki Island.

The new 20-hour journey saves the pilgrims time and is less expensive. The pilgrimages are expected to peak around Matsu's birthday on April 27.

One million travellers visit the Meizhou temple each year, including more than 100,000 from Taiwan. The goddess was believed to have been introduced to the island hundreds of years ago by mainland immigrants. There are more than 3,000 Matsu temples in Taiwan and 10 million followers.

The Taiwan Transport Ministry allowed cargo freighters between Taiwan and the mainland through a third port in January 1997. But direct transport links with the mainland are banned for security.