Catholic pilgrims from Ireland and around the world, many sick or disabled, converged on Lourdes yesterday under exceptional security foll- owing recent extremist attacks.
Armed soldiers and police patrolled the railway station and town centre and inside the sanctuary, where a 19th century village girl said she had visions of the Virgin Mary.
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 yesterday for a series of outdoor masses in multiple languages celebrating the Feast of the Assumption, when Christ's mother ascended into heaven.
French authorities had already been planning extra secur- ity for the annual holiday, but concerns mounted after a series of attacks last month around Europe - notably one on July 26 in north-west France in which two extremists claiming allegiance to Islamic State 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, though some other summer festivals around France have been scrapped.
To reach the Lourdes sanctuary, pilgrims had to offer their bags for repeated checks, and authorities funnelled visitors through three access points, reduced from past years.
Roads were closed to allow pedestrians 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 security personnel were drafted in to Lourdes, including soldiers, bomb squads and dog units, raising the overall security presence to more than 500.
The Catholic Church has recognised dozens of miracles at Lourdes since villager Berna- dette Soubirous, gathering stones in the grotto in 1858, said she had visions of Mary.