PARIS (AP) — Soldiers, police and undercover agents are mixing with pilgrims, some hoping for a miracle cure, at the French pilgrimage site of Lourdes, where some 20,000 are expected to gather on Monday for the Feast of the Assumption — a security challenge for France on high alert for terrorist attacks.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve inspected the more than 500 security forces at the shrine on Saturday, two days before Monday's celebration of the Assumption when, according to Roman Catholic belief, Mary, the mother of Jesus, ascended into heaven.
A down-to-earth security plan is greeting pilgrims as they arrive in this town nestled in verdant southwest France, coming from around the country and from abroad. Police and soldiers were already milling among pilgrims on Saturday, around the sanctuary or the plaza in front of the sprawling white Basilica.
Monday's outdoor Mass will present a special security challenge since some pilgrims are in wheelchairs or on stretchers, making the trip here in hopes of finding a miraculous cure.
Cazenueve said that 297 extra forces were brought in — mobile units, soldiers, bomb squads, canine units — to help local forces, raising the security presence to 508. In addition, pilgrims are being patted down and their bags checked at three entrances to the Lourdes Sanctuary — reduced from 12 in normal times, Lourdes officials have said. Video surveillance cameras have been mounted, drones forbidden and traffic rerouted away from the site at critical hours of the day.
"I've mobilized you all for several months, especially this summer, during an extremely high terrorist threat level," the minister said to the extra forces, thanking them for the help.
A Bastille Day truck attack in Nice, on the Riviera, that killed 85 people was followed less than two weeks later by the slaying of a priest while saying Mass in his small church in Normandy, in northwest France. Both attacks were claimed by the Islamic State group.
The July 26 direct strike on a symbol of Catholicism underscored the need for precautions in Lourdes, which refused to cancel the Assumption celebration. Numerous towns have dropped summer festivals.
Philippe Subercazes, deputy mayor for security, noted that Lourdes has mounted heavy security in the past, for papal visits in 2004 and 2008.
"Then, the idea was to protect the pope, one man. Now, we must protect the crowd. It's a bit different," he said on BFM-TV.
"There are those who feel reassured" by the presence of armed security forces, he said, then added, "Perhaps foreigners ... are more surprised to see these (security) systems."
Lourdes draws pilgrims seeking hope of all kinds, but some of the ailing hope for a cure at the site where a village girl named Bernadette Soubirous, gathering stones in the grotto in 1858, said she had visions of the Virgin Mary. Dozens of miracles were since recognized by the Church, some said to be from the purportedly healing powers of the spring in the grotto, now a prime attraction for pilgrims who adorn the area with candles.