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The Pope vs. the Philly Hindus: Papal visit means a giant religious festival got canceled

The Pope has kicked out the Hindus this year.

Well, kinda. The pontiff’s late September visit is expected to bring two million visitors to Philadelphia for Pope Francis’ first trip to the United States, meaning anyone who wanted to have another event that weekend is pretty much out of luck.

That includes Philadelphia’s Hindu leaders, which hold an annual event called the Ratha-Yatra and is coordinated by the national Festival of India group. The parade that typically takes place down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway culminates with a vegetarian Indian food feast and has seen upwards of 5,000 visitors in past years.

The ancient festival’s large parade consists of colorful chariots, dancing, chanting and discussions that are open to all — not just Philadelphia’s Hindu population. Here’s a look at what the festival has looked like in year’s past:

But this year, the event coincided with Pope Francis’ visit and got bumped. The Festival of India organizers say they probably won’t be rescheduling it.

“We don’t get to have a whole lot of big festivals with the public,” said Sikhi Mahiti, president of the Mt. Airy Radha Krishna Temple. “It’s understandable. The Pope comes in, and it will attract a lot of people. He’s a more popular personality.”

Mahiti said the group — which has been holding events on the Parkway, in LOVE Park and in Eakins Oval for decades  — looked at other locations around Philadelphia, but decided there were few other locations that could have accommodated them. And with the size of the annual festival, they would have had to have gone far outside the city because of stringent security measures that will be in place the weekend of the Pope’s visit.

He added that the group was notified a few months back that they wouldn’t be able to hold their annual event after they applied for a special events permit and it was denied. The city, he said, was willing to work with them on rescheduling. But because the Festival of India is a traveling event, that likely won’t be feasible.

Olivia Gillison, assistant managing director of the Philadelphia Office of Special Events, said anyone who requests a permit for an event happening the same weekend as the Pope’s visit should prepare for it to be denied. Events held on the Parkway and downtown the week leading up to it likely won’t be accommodated, either.

She said it’s all about location, so special events taking place in other city neighborhoods may be approved if they’re not taking place the actual weekend of the Pope’s visit. The office is working with many groups that have annual events around that time to ensure their events can be rescheduled or moved and can still happen.

“It’s all about location,” she said. “But for the two days that the Pope is in town, it is highly unlikely that they will be approved, just because of the stress and security and manpower and all of the city services that will be used. It will be really strained.”

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