Massive security for pope visit to Lourdes

13th August 2004, Comments 0 comments

LOURDES, France, Aug 13 (AFP) - The French Pyrenees town of Lourdes, Christianity's second most visited site after Rome, prepared Friday to welcome John Paul II on a visit that is a further gruelling test of the pope's health.

LOURDES, France, Aug 13 (AFP) - The French Pyrenees town of Lourdes, Christianity's second most visited site after Rome, prepared Friday to welcome John Paul II on a visit that is a further gruelling test of the pope's health.  

Aged and frail, the head of the Roman Catholic Church was set to arrive Saturday, determined to shake off the crippling yoke of Parkinson's disease and complete the 104th foreign trip of his pontificate.  

Security was high in this town near the border with Spain, close to which a 14-year-old girl claimed she saw a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, in 1858.  

For Roman Catholics, Lourdes is synonymous with healing and visited yearly by tens of thousands of disabled pilgrims seeking the healing spring waters of the shrine.  

But the Vatican says the 84-year-old pope is not seeking a cure for his own infirmity, but thanking God for His gifts.  

At least 300,00 pilgrims were expected on the scene to welcome the pope during his two-day stay.   

Fire-fighters, rescue teams and more than 3,000 volunteers were at the ready to assist pilgrims.  

Security precautions were massive, with 3,000 police including 2,700 reinforcements dominating the scene in and around Lourdes Friday.   

Security was also high at Tarbes airport where French President Jacques Chirac was scheduled to meet the pope.  

"There's no definite threat hovering over the event," said Christian Ballet, in charge of security logistics during international visits to France. But vigilance remained the rule, he said.  

The scope of the security was impressive, including ground-to-air missile batteries on the outskirts to guard against air attack, specialists in nuclear and biological risks, and mine clearance teams.  

Ballet said security was less severe than at big world events such as G8 summits.  

"The arrival of the pope is different," he said: "The level of security is not linked to the number of personalities to be protected but to the person of the pope himself and those who have come to see him."  

Security staff carried out last-minute preparations, testing out the familiar light runabout vehicle called the "popemobile" at every point at which John Paul II was scheduled to appear this weekend.  

Asked in Lourdes if he worried about the pope's health, Dr P.M. Laksono of Jogyakarta on the island of Java in Indonesia, said: "Worldly and bodily he is ill, but I think spiritually he is very healthy."      

The Catholic Church officially recognizes 66 miracles attributed to Lourdes' healing waters.  

A 14-year-old local peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, claimed she saw apparitions of the Virgin Mary at the Massabielle grotto in 1858.  

She later reportedly discovered the blessed spring, which has never dried. Its holy water has to be stocked to cope with demand during the high pilgrimage season in Lourdes.   John Paul last visited Lourdes 21 years ago.  

On Saturday he was scheduled to say the Angelus prayer at the grotto, recite the rosary and preside over the recitation of the Stations of the Cross, a candlelit procession ending at the basilica of Lourdes where he was to close the ceremony.  

On Sunday - the Catholic feast day dedicated to the Virgin Mary - John Paul will celebrate mass and deliver a sermon at the Church of Saint Bernadette near the Sanctuary.  

Alain Dohet, looking after thousands of candles lit near the grotto, said things were still relatively quiet Friday.  

"This week has been quiet and even today it was very calm," he said: "We have plenty of space to light candles. Usually before August 15 we're saturated by 8:00 am in the morning."  

"It must be the pope," he suggested. "People are now more likely to arrive on August 14 and 15."  

But there were already crowds at the grotto keen to touch the rock. Hundreds of disabled people waited patiently on benches or in wheelchairs outside the bathhouses for their turn in one of the indivual bath cubicles, whose waters are supplied from the holy spring.  

"It's just like any Friday at the height of the season," said a staff member.  

Many disabled pilgrims said they had not only come to see the pope.  

"We have been coming every year for the last five years and we would be here even if the pope hadn't come," said one. "But it's an extra treat."



Subject: French news

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