Authorities are tightening security at the famous French pilgrimage site of Lourdes over fears it could be a major target for terrorists after a spate of Islamist attacks across the country.
Tens of thousands of pilgrims are expected to descend on the site on the feast of the Assumption next Monday for Mass and a procession.
Security has been high after a series of terror attacks culminating in the brutal murder of a Catholic priest by two Islamists last month, but authorities have decided to allow the pilgrimage to continue as usual.
Béatrice Lagarde, prefect of the Haute-Pyrénées region, told Europe1 radio: “The choice was made to not ban the event, nor the procession or the rituals that go with the pilgrimage, because it is the right of the faithful to access Lourdes.”
She added, however, that “everything will be done to secure the place”.
Several events have been changed, such as the procession which will only take place within a security cordon. The secure area will be accessible only through three gates, with pilgrims subject to security checks and bag searches.
Ms Lagarde said that at least 250 security personnel will be mobilised between 11 and 24 August, including police, paramilitary officers, a bomb disposal unit and a dog team.
The small Pyrenean market town has been a major pilgrimage site since a local peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, reported several apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1858. Around six million people from across the world visit the site every year, making Lourdes France’s biggest tourist centre after Paris.
Europe1 also reports that, after the martyrdom of Fr Jacques Hamel last month, several of his parishioners will be at Lourdes to pray for the repose of his soul. One parishioner said: “I had only known him for two years, but I want to go to Lourdes to strengthen my faith.”