Pilgrims evacuated as French floods hit Lourdes shrine

A rescuer carries a man on his back in Lourdes. Photo: 20 October 2012 Some elderly people had to be carried by rescuers through the flooded streets

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Hundreds of Roman Catholic pilgrims have been evacuated from the sanctuary of Lourdes in France after heavy flooding in the area.

The Gave de Pau river burst its banks after days of rain, flooding campsites around the shrine and parts of the southern city itself.

Lourdes is famous for what many Roman Catholics believe was a vision of the Virgin Mary by a local girl in 1858.

Millions of pilgrims from around the world visit the shrine each year.

'Worst in 40 years'

More than 450 pilgrims, including the sick and disabled, were evacuated from the area by Saturday, local officials say.

The water now is about a metre (three feet) deep in front of the grotto where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared, covering the altar.

The flooded Grotto in Lourdes. Photo: 20 October 2012 The altar at the grotto is now under water

However, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception itself - situated on higher ground - has not suffered any damage, officials say.

"I've seen nothing like it in 40 years," hotel owner Pierre Barrere was quoted as saying by the AFP news agency.

Meteorologists warn that the rain - which has been falling since Thursday - is likely to continue until at least Sunday.

The sanctuary is the name given to the central area of the Lourdes pilgrimage site, which is home to 22 places of worship.

It was founded after 14-year-old peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have witnessed a series of visions in a cave.

Since then, many people suffering illness or infirmity claim to have been miraculously cured by spring water coming from the sanctuary.

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