Pickpocketing on the rise in Lourdes, authorities caution pilgrims

Our Lady of Lourdes grotto Lourdes France Credit Elise Harris CNA Our Lady of Lourdes grotto, France. | Elise Harris/CNA.

As reports of theft are on the rise at a famous Marian shrine in France, Lourdes authorities have increased security and encouraged pilgrims to be more aware of their belongings.

Pierre Aurignac, a local prosecutor, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that the town has had a "statistical explosion" of pickpocketing. So far this year, he said, there have been 274 accounts of pickpocketing, whereas 117 incidents were recorded during the first nine months of 2018.

Most reported robberies occur in the streets near the shrine, where religious shops sell items such as rosaries, icons, statues, and Lourdes water.

"The pickpockets are highly organised professionals," said Philippe Subercaze, a city official in charge of security.

"They arrive in waves and change all the time. As soon as one is identified or arrested, they are replaced. It's a game of cat and mouse," he said, according to the Telegraph.

Since last year, Lourdes authorities have installed an estimated 50 CCTV cameras, and Church officials have established more surveillance cameras near the shrine, the Telegraph reported.

The Lourdes shrine is centered around a grotto in the foothills of the Pyrenees, a mountain range separating Spain and France. In the grotto, St. Bernadette Soubirous, the first daughter of a poor miller, was visited by the Virgin Mary in 1858.

The location of the apparition was notoriously dirty - often used as a garbage dump for the small village. During one of the visions, Bernadette discovered a spring and was asked by the Virgin Mary to drink from and wash in the muddy water. After she followed Mary's request, the water became clear.

Many pilgrims have also followed Mary's request, and the shrine today has numerous water taps and 17 bath cubicles full of this water, to which many miracles have been attributed.

Thousands of ill and afflicted people seek out these waters each year for physical and spiritual healing. Reports of miracles are examined by the Lourdes Medical Bureau. The 70th official healing was recognized in February 2018 in which a French nun, Sister Bernadette Moriau, was regained mobility after years of spinal problems had left her restricted to a wheelchair.

According to official numbers, the Telegraph reported, over 770,000 people visited the shrine last year, but local authorities believe the number to be much higher, noting that some pilgrims do not stay for a long period of time.

While the site is known for its miracles and spiritual conversions, Subercaze cautioned people to take caution, noting that the religious site often lures people into a false sense of security.

"Many people think when they arrive in Lourdes nothing can happen and they leave their handbags open wider than they would in Paris," Subercaze said, according to the Telegraph.

"In Lourdes, they think the Virgin will protect them and nothing will happen to them."

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