Rwandan President Paul Kagame has warned Catholics who visit pilgrimage sites known to have been sites of Marian apparitions each year, accusing them of "worshipping poverty".
Every year, thousands of pilgrims travel, sometimes on foot, to the town of Kibeho, known for several apparitions of the Virgin Mary to three young girls in the early 1980s.
This year, however, the Rwandan president lashed out at the pilgrims after a mass in Kibeho attracted more than 20,000 people on Assumption Day, August 15.
Speaking to young people on Wednesday, he described the pilgrimage as "horrible". "If I hear of this again, that people have traveled to worship poverty, I will bring trucks to pick them up and throw them in prison, and I will only release them when they no longer have this mentality of poverty," said Paul Kagame, himself a Catholic, although it is not known what prompted the threats.
However, a government spokeswoman assured AFP on Thursday that President Kagame was not referring to Kibeho in his speech, saying he was probably referring to a little-known site in western Rwanda.
"In his speech at the youth event, President Kagamé at no point mentioned a specific pilgrimage site, and certainly not Kibeho," said Yolande Makolo.
"What he was most likely referring to was an informal pilgrimage-type event taking place in the Rutsiro district," she added. "The aim (of the president) was to encourage young Rwandans to be ambitious and work hard, instead of being influenced by cult-like rituals."
There was no immediate reaction from the Catholic Church. Almost all Rwandans are Christians, with Catholics accounting for half.
The first Marian apparitions at Kibeho occurred in 1981, and were recognized by the Church in 2001. The site has since become a popular place of pilgrimage for Catholics from all over the world, hoping for a miracle or healing.
According to local media reports this month, the Catholic Church is seeking 3.5 billion Rwandan francs (around 2.7 million euros) to expand the pilgrimage site.