Catholic pilgrims from round the world rally behind terror-hit France in Lourdes

A nun walks past a French soldier patroling inside the sanctuary of Notre Dame de Lourdes during the annual Catholic pilgrimage of Lourdes on Monday (Aug 15).
A nun walks past a French soldier patroling inside the sanctuary of Notre Dame de Lourdes during the annual Catholic pilgrimage of Lourdes on Monday (Aug 15).PHOTO: AFP

LOURDES, France (AFP) - Thousands of Catholic pilgrims offered up prayers for terror-scarred France during Assumption celebrations on Monday in Lourdes, held under tight security after last month's massacre in Nice and murder of a priest.

The gathering at the shrine in the foothills of the Pyrenees is the first major Catholic event in France since priest Jacques Hamel was killed in his church on July 26.

Undeterred by the threat, an estimated 22,000 pilgrims from across Europe, the Middle East and Asia descended on the Lourdes shrine for one of the biggest dates 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, a businessman who was among a group of 35 Indonesians from Jakarta.

Security was tight ahead for the annual four-day pilgrimage, which culminated with an open-air mass Monday 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 as a helicopter flew overhead.

In total, 500 security force members were deployed to protect the worshippers, who had their bags searched on entry to the site.

The streets around the sanctuary were closed to traffic, reflecting authorities' nervousness after the July 14 carnage during Bastille Day celebrations in Nice, where a Tunisian man crushed 85 people to death with a truck.

"I think it's important that the soldiers are here just in case anything happened, but at the same time it's really important to pray for peace because so much has been going on," said 21-year-old Leila Bousbaa from Britain.

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.

July's assaults in Nice and Hamel's church in the northern town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray shattered eight months of relative peace in France after the bloodshed at a Paris concert hall and other nightspots in November.

Local church leaders sought to rally the devout Monday, asking them to "pray for France" and light a candle for Hamel.

President Francois Hollande will meet Pope Francis on Wednesday at the Vatican, with presidential sources saying the two plan to discuss the fallout from the priest's death.

The cleric's killers - French teens Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean - claimed allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.

On the Sunday after the attack, Muslims joined Catholic worshippers at services in several churches to show their solidarity.

Many of the devout gathered in Lourdes also called for unity.

"We will pray that this country finds peace and that these lost children find peace and their place in France," Philomene Petavi from the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe said, referring to French extremists.

Despite the messages of peace, 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.