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Catholic pilgrims visit Lourdes shrine in France under all-time heavy security

 Catholic pilgrims visit Lourdes shrine in France under all-time heavy securityCatholic 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 centre and inside the sanctuary at Lourdes, where a 19th-century village girl said she had visions of the Virgin Mary.

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.

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, some in wheelchairs, to reach the site unhindered. Car attacks are a new concern after a driver rammed his truck into Bastille Day revelers in Nice last month, killing 85.

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 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.

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.
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