'The Virgin will protect': Lourdes pilgrims are easy prey for thieves

LOURDES, France – Pilgrims to the holy town of Lourdes in southern France, lulled into carelessness by the promise of heavenly protection, are increasingly falling victim to pickpockets, local authorities say.

Thefts have more than doubled as organized gangs turned their attention to the town, attracted by the easy pickings there.

"Many people think that when they arrive in Lourdes nothing can happen, leaving their handbags open wider than they would have in Paris," said Philippe Subercaze, a city councilor in charge of security.

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

Lourdes is one of the most revered sites for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics because it is said to be where the Virgin Mary appeared to a peasant girl in a grotto in 1858.

The town, with a population of about 14,000, attracted more than 770,000 visitors last year. Most came from Italy, Spain, Britain and Ireland.

Local prosecutor Pierre Aurignac told AFP there has been a "statistical explosion" of pickpocketing incidents – from 117 in the first 9 months of last year to 274 so far in 2019.

"It is cash they are after."

Most of the thefts happened in the town center in the shop-lined roads near the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, an area surrounding a shrine.

The municipality has put up about 50 video cameras since last year, adding to those the Sanctuary itself has installed.

"These are very organized professionals," Subercaze said of the pickpockets. "They arrive in waves and change all the time. As soon as one is identified or arrested, they are replaced. It is a game of cat and mouse."

Slowly but surely, the pilgrims are wising up.

"A couple had their things stolen a few days ago, so now I take more care," said Anna Maria, who came to Lourdes from Naples, Italy.

"I keep my bag pressed close to my body." – Rappler.com