Rome's Catholic churches ordered closed

Philip Pullella
A decree has dispensed Catholics in the Rome archdiocese from their obligation to attend Mass

Rome's Catholic churches have been ordered closed because of the coronavirus pandemic in a move believed to be unprecedented in modern times.

The decree by Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, Pope Francis' vicar for the Rome archdiocese, will remain in effect until at least April 3.

There are more than 900 parochial and historic churches in the Italian capital.

Previously, only Masses had been cancelled because of the outbreak.

The decree on Thursday also dispenses Catholics in the archdiocese from their obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and on what are known as Holy Days of Obligation.

The decree allows a relatively smaller number of oratories in convents and monasteries to remain open.

The move follows a decision by the Italian government on Wednesday night to close virtually every commercial activity in Italy apart from pharmacies, food shops and other stores selling essential goods.

St Peter's Basilica, which is on Vatican territory, has already been closed and the Pope has cancelled his two weekly appearances in public.

He held his most recent Sunday blessing and general audience from inside the Vatican and both have been streamed on the internet.