By Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira
FATIMA, Portugal (Reuters) - Armed with a candle and a blue and yellow flag, Karina Potomkina, a Ukrainian who has been watching her country being ravaged by war from afar, joined tens thousands of faithful in Portugal on Thursday evening to pray for peace.
Potomkina, a 42-year-old who moved from the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia to Lisbon two decades ago, and about 200,000 others gathered at one of Catholicism's most famous sanctuaries, the Fatima shrine.
The annual event marks the first of three reported visions of the Virgin Mary, also known as Our Lady, more than 100 years ago. But many like Potomkina took the opportunity to urge Russia to end its invasion of Ukraine.
"This really is a place where people can ask for peace, pray for those we lost and ... for the end of this war that has no explanation," a teary-eyed Potomkina said as she placed a Ukrainian flag on a fence next to a Portuguese one.
Her mother, grandmother and siblings are back home in Ukraine. Some of her relatives are doctors and nurses and have refused to leave, staying to help those in need.
Russia sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24 in what it called a "special operation" to degrade its military capabilities and root out what it calls dangerous nationalists. Thousands have been killed and more than 5 million people - mainly women, children and older people - have been forced to flee.
"It's very difficult," said Potomkina as she waited for the candlelight procession to start.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches the Virgin Mary appeared to three Portuguese children in 1917 in Fatima, which was then an impoverished farming village. It believes she gave the children three messages, the so-called secrets of Fatima.
Pope Francis made two of the shepherd children saints in 2017.
Among the crowd and also holding a candle was 70-year-old retiree Fatima Sampaio.
"I'm moved, very moved," Sampaio said as she struggled to hold back the tears "(I'm here to) thank Our Lady for being well (after COVID-19)... and now I am asking her, above all, for peace: peace in Europe, peace for all."
(Reporting by Catarina Demony, Miguel Pereira and Pedro Nunes in Fatima; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)