Pope walks across empty Rome to pray

Philip Pullella
Pope Francis has walked through near-empty Rome streets to pray at a shrine for the end of COVID-19

Pope Francis has ventured into a deserted Rome to pray at two shrines for the end of the coronavirus pandemic as the Vatican said his Easter services will be held without the public for the first time.

Francis left the Vatican unannounced to pray at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and then walked along one of Rome's main streets to visit St Marcello church to pray before a crucifix that was used in a procession when the plague hit Rome in 1522.

A Vatican statement said he prayed for an end to the pandemic and also for the sick, their families and health providers and workers keeping pharmacies and food stores open across Italy amid a country-wide lockdown.

A Vatican picture showed the pope and a small security detail walking on an empty Via del Corso, which is usually packed with shoppers and people taking strolls on Sunday.

The Vatican said earlier that his Holy Weeks and Easter services next month will be held without public participation, a step believed to be unprecedented in modern times.

It was not clear how the massive events will be scaled down but sources said officials were studying ways to hold them in indoor locations, including St Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, with small representative groups attending.

The Holy Week services - which begin on Palm Sunday - lead up to Easter, the most important day of the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar for the world's 1.3 billion members.

Italy has been hit harder by the coronavirus that any other European country.

The country's death toll rose to 1,809 on Sunday and the total number of cases rose to 24,747.