Pope displeased with 'drastic' Rome church closures

Vatican City (AFP) –


Pope Francis expressed his displeasure Friday with the move by the Italian authorities to close all Catholic houses of worship across Rome until April 3.

"Drastic measures are not always good," the Argentine-born pontiff was quoted by the ANSA news agency as saying in his introduction to mass, in uncharacteristically blunt language for the head of the Church.

He nevertheless urged the faithful to show "responsibility" and "cooperate with the appropriate authorities," ANSA reported.

Italy has imposed Europe's toughest response to a pandemic that has killed 1,016 people and infected more than 15,000 in the peninsula in less than three weeks.

The government has shut all shops except for pharmacies and groceries in the hope of stemming contagion and easing the burden on Italy's overstretched hospitals.

The Holy See initially resisted the drastic measure of closing places of worship in a country that is overwhelmingly Catholic.

But the papal vicar for Rome said he was finally forced to take the step by "the even more binding restrictions placed on the ordinary movement of people" by the government.

"This provision is for the common good," Rome vicar Angelo De Donatis conceded.

Catholics have been exempted from the obligation to attend mass as a result.

- 'See the sick' -

The draconian measures only allow Italians to go outside for work or in special circumstances -- such as visiting sick relatives.

Everyone must carry with them a signed form to say they are aware of the risks of being outdoors.

Trains are still running but travellers must show documents to security guards at stations well as airports.

Streets in central Rome are almost completely empty and patrolled by soldiers armed with machine guns.

In video clips from the Tuscan city of Sienna and the southern city of Naples -- reminiscent of similar ones from the Chinese city of Wuhan during its quarantine -- people can be heard singing from their windows over the empty streets.

The pope nevertheless called for priests "to have the courage to go out and see the sick, bringing the strength of the word of God".

"We continue to pray together for the sick, for health workers and for the many people suffering from this epidemic" Pope Francis said.