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Catholic pilgrims visit Lourdes under heavy security

Iain Sullivan
Associated Press

Lourdes, France — Watched over by French soldiers and police, Catholic pilgrims from around the world prayed together for healing and peace Monday at a grotto shrine in Lourdes where exceptional security greeted the spiritual travelers due to recent extremist attacks.

A helicopter circled overhead as thousands of visitors bearing candles and banners streamed toward the celebrated grotto and the sprawling plaza of the basilica, apparently undeterred by new security restrictions or the recent attacks.

A special prayer was held for France and for the more than 200 people killed by “the blind violence of terrorism” in Islamic extremist attacks over the past year and a half, including a priest whose throat was slit last month.

The prayer extended to the soldiers and police officers patrolling the train station, town center and inside the sanctuary at Lourdes, where a 19th-century village girl said she had visions of the Virgin Mary.

The site in southern France near the Spanish border annually draws pilgrims of all kinds, including sick and disabled believers hoping for a cure from the famed spring water in the Lourdes grotto.

Crowds gathered throughout the day at a series of outdoor Masses in multiple languages celebrating the Feast of the Assumption, when according to Catholic belief, Jesus’ mother Mary ascended into heaven.

French authorities already had been planning extra security for the holiday, but concerns mounted after a series of attacks in July around Europe — notably one July 26 in northwest France, in which two extremists claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group stormed a morning Mass, slit an elderly priest’s throat and took nuns and parishioners hostage.

The prayer for France extended to victims of extremism in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan, and persecuted Christians.

“It is all of humanity that is being trampled,” The Rev. Fabien Lejeusne said, urging believers “to build bridges, and not walls.”

Lourdes officials refused to cancel this year’s pilgrimage, although some other summer festivals around France have been dropped amid security fears.

To reach the Lourdes sanctuary, pilgrims proffered up their bags for repeated checks, and authorities funneled visitors through three access points, reduced from past years.

Roads were closed to allow pedestrians to reach the site unhindered. Vehicle attacks are a new concern after a driver rammed his truck into Bastille Day revelers in Nice last month, killing 85.

Petronella Davis of London, 62, called the security measures “a good thing,” but added, “I don’t feel any less safe than I used to.”

Gloria Munoz Fernandez, a 68-year-old pilgrim from Madrid, said, “If you believe in God you don’t need this sort of protection; however, for me it (the army) is a good protection, it helps you to be more at ease.”

Nearly 300 extra forces were brought to Lourdes — including mobile intervention teams, soldiers, bomb squads and canine units — to help local forces, raising the overall security presence to more than 500.

The Catholic Church has recognized dozens of miracles at Lourdes since villager Bernadette Soubirous said she had visions of Mary while gathering stones in the grotto in 1858.

Among those leading ceremonies at the Lourdes festivities is Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, a top French church official who faced accusations this year of covering up for pedophile priests. He denies wrongdoing.

French President Francois Hollande marked Assumption — a national holiday in a country that is officially secular but traditionally Roman Catholic — by announcing a trip to see Pope Francis on Wednesday.