- Associated Press - Sunday, August 15, 2010

PARIS (AP) — Thousands of people, many disabled or ailing, were evacuated Sunday from the shrine at Lourdes in southern France after a bomb threat on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Catholic holy day.

The pilgrims returned after explosives experts scoured the area.

Some 30,000 pilgrims were at the site, whose spring water is reputed to have healing powers, when Lourdes police received a threat late in the morning saying a bomb would hit the site Sunday afternoon, said shrine spokesman Pierre Adias.

In an announcement read in six languages, authorities ordered everyone evacuated just as a midday Mass was supposed to begin.

About 900 gravely ill pilgrims, including many on stretchers, were taken to a secure place while explosives experts with sniffer dogs fanned out around the shrine, Lourdes Mayor Jean-Pierre Artiganave said on France-Info radio.

While the site was off limits to pilgrims, a scheduled prayer service was held anyway, in the shadow of the spring and a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Bishop Jacques Perrier sought to soothe believers. “We will not be afraid,” he said in opening the service, attended by only six priests and shrine personnel and broadcast on the website of TV Lourdes. Dozens of pilgrims remained waiting outside the gates, watching from afar.

After about five hours, the shrine reopened and Assumption ceremonies resumed.

“Inspection of the site allowed us to determine that it was an unfounded threat,” Mr. Adias said.

No information was available about the source of the threat.

The mayor said the evacuation was peaceful but acknowledged “the atmosphere is not one of the greatest calm.”

The Aug. 15 holiday marks the taking into heaven of the Virgin Mary. It’s a public holiday in France and several other countries, and one on which especially large numbers of pilgrims visit the Lourdes shrine.

Some pilgrims came to this year’s ceremonies in wheelchairs, others supported by loved ones, in images shown on French television.

The Roman Catholic shrine in the foothills of the Pyrenees has special meaning for the suffering, many of whom believe its spring water has the power to heal and even work miracles.

The sick bathe in pools of the cool water and take it home in plastic jugs and vials in the shape of the Virgin Mary. Thousands of people have claimed to be cured there, and the Roman Catholic Church officially has recognized 67 incidents of miraculous healing linked to Lourdes.

Pope Benedict XVI came to Lourdes in 2008, marking the 150th anniversary of visions of the Virgin Mary to a Lourdes peasant girl, 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous, who later was made a saint.