Some Rome churches reopen after angry pope steps in

Dmitry ZAKS
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Under draconian anti-virus measures, the Vatican has been forced to close churches in Rome

Some of Rome's Catholic churches reopened Friday after Pope Francis voiced displeasure with the Italian authorities' push to shut them because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The rare standoff between the 83-year-old pontiff and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's government came as Italy's death toll reached 1,266.

The Mediterranean country has suffered more than half the COVID-19 fatalities reported outside China and has seen the toll grow by hundreds each day.

Conte has responded by shuttering most shops and all restaurants and other public places in the hope of stemming contagion and easing the burden on overstretched hospitals.

Italians have been told to avoid going outside without a good reason and machine-gun toting soldiers now patrol city streets.

But churches have stayed open in the overwhelmingly Catholic country throughout what many now call Italy's biggest crisis since World War II.

That changed when the vicar of Rome said Thursday he could no longer withstand government pressure and was closing all Catholic places of worship across the Italian capital.

The Rome diocese lists slightly over 1,000 churches -- about 900 of them Catholic ones.

The pope's response was unusually swift and blunt.

"Drastic measures are not always good," the Argentine-born pope said in livestreamed Friday morning prayer.

- 'Not closing doors' -

He prayed for "pastors to have the good judgement... not to leave the holy, faithful people of God alone."

The vicar of Rome then issued a statement explaining that he had had "a further meeting" with the pontiff in which it was decided to let at least some churches to reopen their doors.

Vicar Angelo De Donatis said he ultimately decided that closing churches "will sow confusion" among the faithful and see some "feel even more isolated".

His decree explained that all of Rome's churches would remain closed to tourists.

But smaller houses of worship would open in some places specifically for the faithful.

"Dear priests, we rely on your wise discernment," the Rome vicar wrote.

"Help everyone feel like the Church is not closing its doors on them."

Yet Rome now stands a deserted city in which almost nothing functions and barely anyone ventures outside.

Much of Italy is the same.

A clip that went viral from the Tuscan city of Siena showed mostly elderly voices joining in a traditional choir song that rang out from their windows and over the empty streets.

A similar scene with more upbeat signing played out in one of the residential highrise areas of the southern city of Naples.

And people danced on their balconies to the "Macarena" in northern Turin.

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