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Catholic churches across Rome shut due to virus

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Vatican City (AFP)

The Vatican on Thursday closed all Catholic churches across Rome to stem the spread of a coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 1,000 people across Italy.

The papal vicar for Rome said the churches would reopen when a broader Italian government crackdown on public gatherings expires on April 3.

"The faithful are consequently exempt from their obligation to fulfil the festive precept," a statement from Cardinal Angelo De Donatis said.

The Vatican had spent days resisting having to take the drastic measure of shuttering places of worship in the overwhelmingly Catholic country.

It closed its museums and even the Saint Paul Basilica -- parts of its soaring dome designed by Michelangelo -- to tourists as the death toll continued to mount.

The Vatican also banned mass across the country and called off all weddings and funerals.

But the churches themselves stayed open as long as the faithful followed government regulations and remained a metre (three feet) apart while inside.

It was not immediately clear when Rome's churches had last been forced to close en masse.

The Nazis and Italian Fascists kept Pope Pius XII confined to the Vatican during World War II.

But at least some Rome churches kept their doors open during the war.

- 'Domestic churches' -

The closures come with the pope himself suffering from a cold and communicating with the faithful by livestream as a safety precaution.

Pope Francis complained of feeling "caged" while reading his traditional Sunday Angelus Prayer into a camera from a Vatican library instead of his usual window overlooking crowds on Saint Peter's Square.

The 83-year-old was also forced to miss his weekly Wednesday appearance on the square that he often uses to hug and shake hands with fans and followers from across the world.

The new regulations cover the Italian capital and not the Vatican City statelet located entirely within Rome.

The Holy See has recorded one COVID-19 infection and is awaiting the results of another person who attended one of its functions at the start of the month.

The Vatican statement said access to "churches of the Diocese of Rome open to the public -- and more generally to religious buildings of any kind open to the public -- is forbidden to all the faithful".

The statement added that monasteries would remain open to "communities that habitually use them as residents".

"This provision is for the common good," De Donatis wrote.

The Italian government on Wednesday announced a comprehensive crackdown that shuttered all retail stores except for pharmacies and groceries.

De Donatis said he was finally moved to close Roman churches by "the even more binding restrictions placed on the ordinary movement of people" on Wednesday.

"At this time, even more than ever, our houses are domestic churches," the Rome cardinal wrote.

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