Security tight as Catholic pilgrims head for Lourdes shrine
Catholic pilgrims from around the world, many sick or disabled, converged on a shrine in the French town of Lourdes on Monday under exceptional security following recent extremist attacks.
Armed soldiers and police patrolled the railway station and town centre 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 towards 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 on Monday for a series of outdoor Masses in multiple languages celebrating the Feast of the Assumption, when according to Catholic belief, Jesus's mother Mary ascended into heaven.
Thousands attended a candlelight procession on 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 on July 26 in north-west 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 scrapped.
To reach the Lourdes sanctuary, pilgrims proffered up their bags for repeated checks, and authorities funnelled visitors through three access points, reduced from past years.
Roads were closed to allow pedestrians, some in wheelchairs, to reach the site unhindered. Car attacks are a new concern after a driver rammed his truck into Bastille Day revellers in Nice last month, killing 85.
Nearly 300 extra forces were drafted in to Lourdes - including mobile intervention teams, soldiers, bomb squads and dog units - to help local forces, raising the overall security presence to more than 500.
The Catholic Church has recognised 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 pilgrimage festivities is Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, a top French church official who faced accusations this year of covering up for paedophile priests. He denies wrongdoing.