Lourdes, France, Aug 15 – Thousands of Catholic pilgrims thronged the French shrine of Lourdes on Monday for Assumption celebrations held under tight security after the murder of a priest, the latest victim in a series of jihadist attacks.
The gathering at the sanctuary in the foothills of the Pyrenees is the first major Catholic event in France since priest Jacques Hamel was killed by two jihadists who stormed his church during mass on July 26 and slit his throat.
Groups from across Europe, the Middle East and Asia travelled to Lourdes for the occasion, one of the biggest in the Christian calendar, marking the ascent into Heaven of the Virgin Mary.
“We’ve come to pray for peace in the world, which seems to be in chaos,” said Piet Tarappa, an Indonesian businessman who came from Jakarta with 35 other pilgrims and a bishop.
Lionel Ambroise, a 29-year-old French engineer living in Brussels, said he had come to “reflect on the world and France in particular, which is going through a crisis.”
Security was extremely tight ahead for this year’s pilgrimage, which culminated Monday with an open-air mass at the spot where Mary is said to have appeared to a shepherd girl in 1858.
Soldiers in fatigues with automatic rifles slung over their shoulders watched over the ceremony and a helicopter flew overhead during the mass. In total, 500 security force members were deployed to protect the crowd of up to 25,000 pilgrims expected at the mass.
Worshippers had their bags searched on entry to the site, where bomb disposal experts with sniffer dogs were on standby.
– ‘Pray for France’ –
The streets around the sanctuary were sealed off to traffic, to prevent an attack using a vehicle after last month’s truck massacre in Nice.
Three large-scale attacks over the past year and a half have rocked France, with the July 14 attack in Nice shattering months of relative peace after the bloodshed in Paris in November.
French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin dedicated his homily to his country, which had been “rocked by so much suffering since January 2015 (when a satirical magazine and a Jewish grocery were attacked) and which was again cruelly hit last month.”
Barbarin said his message was addressed to “all the faithful”, including Jews and Muslims.
Only around seven per cent of French Catholics regularly attend church according to a 2010 survey.
Local church leaders have sought to rally the devout in the face of the recent attacks, asking them to “pray for France”.
They have also asked Catholics to visit a church on Monday and light a candle for Hamel, whose teenage killers claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group.
– Bucking tourism trend –
Following the attack, Muslims joined Catholic worshippers at services in several churches to show their solidarity.
The 85-year-old priest’s murder in Normandy came less than two weeks after a Tunisian — said by investigators to have become radicalised by online jihadist videos — slammed a truck into a crowd leaving a fireworks display in Nice, killing 85 people.
Despite calls for unity, racial tensions have surfaced in some areas, with a mass brawl erupting at the weekend on the holiday island of Corsica — reportedly over tourists snapping picture of local Muslim women wearing full-body swimsuits, or burqinis.
The attacks have also led to a slowdown in tourism.
Several major public events have been cancelled over security concerns.
But fears of mass cancellations by pilgrims bound for Lourdes failed to materialise.
Instead, organisers noted a late surge in bookings by people apparently seeking solace in faith.
“It’s important to show that life goes on,” said Matthieu Guignard, one of the pilgrimage coordinators.
“It’s not because a few fanatics try to sow fear that we should abandon our faith, our beliefs, our way of living.”
Lourdes attracts around six million people a year, making it one of the biggest sites of Catholic pilgrimage in the world.
The shrine is particularly popular with the sick and disabled, who come to bathe in a spring in the cave where Saint Bernadette said she saw Mary, believing the water to have healing properties.