Pilgrims Visit Lourdes |Amid Tight Security

      LOURDES, France (AP) — Catholic pilgrims from around the world, many sick or disabled, converged Monday at a shrine in the French town of Lourdes under exceptional security after recent extremist attacks.
     Armed soldiers and police patrolled 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 draws pilgrims of all kinds, some hoping for a cure from the famous spring water in the Lourdes grotto.
     As a helicopter circled overhead, visitors bearing candles and banners streamed toward the grotto and the sprawling plaza of the basilica, apparently undeterred by new security restrictions or the recent attacks.
     Crowds began gathering at the sanctuary before dawn Monday for 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. Thousands attended a candlelight procession Sunday night, though the route was reduced from past years to better protect believers.
     French authorities had already been planning extra security for the annual 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.
     Lourdes officials refused to cancel this year’s pilgrimage, although some other summer festivals around France have been dropped.
     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, canine units — to help local forces, raising the overall security presence to over 500.
     The Catholic Church has recognized dozens of miracles at Lourdes since villager Bernadette Soubirous, gathering stones in the grotto in 1858, said she had visions of Mary.
     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.
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     Charlton reported from Paris.
     
     Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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