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Way In

First encounter

'Come to Lourdes to say I love you,' said Valentines posters last month, touting a 'couples weekend' as part of efforts by the local diocese to boost dwindling visitor numbers.

And this year officials announced that married or not, straight or gay, you and your sweetheart would be welcome. The flyer was illustrated with a man and woman holding hands but the French sanctuary's treasurer Thierry Castillo insisted that the invitation was 'open to all kinds of couples - married, not married, homosexual ...'

He did note that unmarried couples, straight or gay, could not expect the blessing of the Catholic Church but the local rector said that 'The miracle of Lourdes is that of the encounter. We launched Operation Saint Valentine this year with this in mind.

'We'll see who turns up,' said the diocesan communications director ahead of the weekend. 'The goal is not to know who they are, the idea is to welcome all couples so that they entrust their love to the Lord. It's a prayer for couples. This initiative aims to extend God's love to all. It's a first.'