MAGHDUSHE, Lebanon — Women activists planning to sail to Gaza gathered on Thursday near a statue of the Virgin Mary in south Lebanon to pray she bless their flotilla, christened "Mariam" in her honour.
"Mariam has begun to achieve its goals and aims, as Israeli officials expressed fear and sent out warnings and threats before deciding to ease the blockade on Gaza," said spokeswoman Rima Farah.
"The participants are committed to making progress and our only weapons are faith in the Virgin Mary and in humanity," she told AFP.
Tens of Christian and Muslim women gathered in prayer in a cave near Our Lady of Mantara in the town of Maghdushe, where Mary was said to have waited for Jesus while he was preaching nearby 2,000 years ago.
Along with European activists and journalists, they are planning to sail for Gaza with an aid ship loaded with medical supplies in the latest bid to break Israel's four-year blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory.
The women insist they are not affiliated with Israel's Lebanese enemy Hezbollah or any other political organisation and have not given an exact date for the departure of the ship.
The trip comes as Israel faces an international backlash over its deadly May 31 seizure of a six-ship aid fleet bound for Gaza, in which nine Turkish activists were shot dead by naval commandos in clashes on one of the boats.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak on Thursday warned Lebanon it would be responsible for any "violent and dangerous confrontation."
But Israel also approved a plan to ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip after weeks of international pressure, while providing few details on what new goods would be allowed in.
"Mariam" organiser Samar al-Hajj for her part thanked Israel "for its threats which only strengthened these women's willpower to make the trip."
"The ship is now ready," she told AFP. "We are not afraid."
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