EL COBRE, Cuba (AP) – It’s been 400 years since three men found a diminutive wooden statue floating off the Cuban coast bearing the label, “I am the Virgin of Charity.”

Countless miracles have been since ascribed to the image, which was declared the patron saint of Cuba and crowned by the late Pope John Paul II during a historic visit to the communist-run island in 1998.

But while the Virgin has evolved into one of the island’s most important symbols, it confounds both the Roman Catholic church and Cuba’s communist rulers. That’s because many of her most fervent devotees say they follow the Virgin, but not the faith, and some use her shrine as a place to make anti-government statements.

“I am not Catholic – I just believe in the Virgin,” Marleny Faria, a 50-year-old seamstress from the city of Santiago de Cuba, says as she visits the statue’s shrine. “I came here to ask for the health of my grandson.”

Faria spoke at the El Cobre church with a 1-month-old baby in her arms, sat through a morning Mass before climbing a winding staircase to face the Virgin and solemnly solicit her protection of the newborn.

During services, the Virgin looks down at the congregation from a clear casing high above the pulpit; afterward, she mechanically swivels around to the cozy alcove where she receives her visitors. Pilgrims lay wreaths of bright flowers at her altar and gaze adoringly at the 16-inch figure, dressed in an elaborate golden gown and wearing dangling earrings.

In a room downstairs, devotees leave behind chunks of hair and letters to ask the Virgin for good health, love and success. They also deliver objects to thank her for wishes already fulfilled. Wheelchairs and IV tubes intermingle with concert posters, medals and baseball jerseys.

“She’s answered the wishes of humble, regular people as well as political leaders, athletes and artists,” says Karel Despaigne, who turned over the thesis that earned him an economics degree this year to the Virgin. The 24-year-old had previously come to her shrine a few months earlier asking for help in finishing his project.

“A lot of people trust more in her than in anything else,” Despaigne says. “I was baptized when I was little but I don’t follow the Catholic religion. I follow her, because of her history, her idiosyncrasy, her miracles.”

The Virgin was discovered in the Bay of Nipe in the early 17th century before being brought to the village of El Cobre, nestled in lush tropical forests outside Santiago in southeastern Cuba. She resided in several small shrines, including one in a hospital, until the church at the peak of a hill in El Cobre was built in her honor.

The church’s current priest, the Rev. Jorge Rodriguez Rey, recognizes that many who hear his sermons are not devout believers. Tourists and nonreligious Cubans from across the island certainly outnumber practicing Catholics who go to the church, he says.

“Those who take Communion, or use the church for weddings and baptisms – well, it’s a small number,” he says. “Many people who come here have an informal faith. We try to take advantage of their search for the transcendental, and educate them about Catholicism. We don’t turn them away.”

Gifts for this Cuban version of the Virgin Mary are also accepted with open arms. A treasure chest contains precious jewels donated to the Virgin over the years, some of which were used for her intricate crown, Rodriguez Rey says.

Ernest Hemingway gave the Virgin the Nobel Prize he won for his literature soon after writing “The Old Man and the Sea” in his Havana hacienda. The mother of Fidel and Raul Castro left behind a small golden guerrilla fighter in the 1950s as her sons battled the government of former dictator Fulgencio Batista ahead of the Cuban Revolution.

The brothers survived: Cuban President Fidel Castro turns 80 in August and Defense Minister Raul Castro, his designated successor, just celebrated his 75th birthday.

More modern-day objects include replicas of rafts, which began appearing in the 1990s as Cubans increasingly took to the seas for the risky voyage to a new life in the United States, and, more recently, objects related to imprisoned political opponents of Castro’s government.

A black-and-white poster showing the shadow of a man looking out behind a set of prison bars asks the Virgin for “the liberation of political prisoners.” Pins and keychains with photos of activists imprisoned in a massive government crackdown on dissidents in the spring of 2003 line one table.

In Cuba’s highly controlled society, it’s rare to see these images outside the homes of dissidents or their relatives.

But the Catholic Church has gained some autonomy from the government over the years, and, according to the priest at El Cobre church, the Virgin belongs to all Cubans.

The tradition has become “so Cuban, so integrated in mainstream culture,” Rodriguez Rey says. “Even members of the military come here.”

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