Fear of terror attack blamed as crowds stay away from Vatican
Pope launches 'Year of Mercy' as 5,000 soldiers and police patrol Italian capital
Pope Francis inaugurated a special 'Year of Mercy' at the Vatican yesterday but fears of terrorism meant that the crowds in St Peter's Square were much more modest than expected.
The Vatican had hoped that up to 100,000 people would take part in an open-air Mass in the huge Renaissance piazza, but in the end an estimated 40,000 people attended.
The low numbers were attributed in part to the cold weather and the fact that many Italians spent the day - a national holiday - doing their Christmas shopping.
But fears of terrorism in the wake of the Paris attacks last month also had an effect on numbers.
A survey this week found that nearly two million Italians had abandoned plans to travel to Rome to celebrate the Year of Mercy - a special calendar of events that lasts until November 2016.
The survey, commissioned by Coldiretti, a national organisation representing the food sector, predicted that fears of terrorism would also lead to a sharp drop in the number of foreigners coming to the Vatican.
A second survey found that 50pc of Italians believed that an attack could occur during the Year of Mercy.
The poll, by a national tourism organisation called Confturismo, found that a third of Italians were now afraid to travel abroad and the same proportion feared Italy was a target for terrorism.
Pope Francis (78) heralded the start of the special calendar of events, which is based on the theme of mercy, by pushing open the huge bronze "Holy Door" that leads into St Peter's Basilica, to the right of the main entrance.
It was the first time it had been opened since the last jubilee year, in 2000 under Pope John Paul II.
He paused on the threshold of the basilica for two minutes of silent prayer before walking inside, in a gesture that will be carried out by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims over the next 12 months.
"To pass through the Holy Door means to rediscover the infinite mercy of the Father who welcomes everyone and goes out personally to encounter each of them," the Argentinian Pope said.
He was followed through the door by his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (88), and by hundreds of cardinals, bishops and members of religious orders.
The Year of Mercy is intended to show a warmer, more compassionate side of the Roman Catholic Church - something Pope Francis has championed since being elected pontiff in March 2013.
There will be special Masses and extra general audiences in St Peter's Square and the Pope has set aside one Friday each month to slip out of the Vatican to perform an act of mercy himself, in private. It was initially hoped that up to 25 million Catholic pilgrims would descend on the city for the Year of Mercy, but that has now been revised down to 10 million.
In propaganda videos, theIslamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) group has boasted of aiming to plant the black flag of its self-declared caliphate on the cupola of St Peter's.
Last month, the FBI in the US warned Italy that according to its intelligence gathering, the Vatican was a potential target for Islamist terrorists.
The FBI warned that Isil might also try to strike Milan's famed cathedral and its opera house, La Scala.
The US embassy released a security warning on the same day, telling American citizens of the potential terrorist targets.
The opening of the jubilee year took place amid tight security, with special police units patrolling the Tiber River on jet skis and in speed boats, and around 5,000 soldiers and police deployed around the city.
There is a no-fly zone over the Italian capital, with authorities threatening to shoot down unauthorised aircraft and drones if they are perceived to be a threat.
Nicolo D'Angelo, the city's chief of police, said the biggest challenge was trying to prevent attacks by "lone wolves".
"It's a global threat - it doesn't just affect Italy, but all countries that are at war with Islamic State," he told 'La Repubblica' newspaper.
Hotels in Rome had hoped for a tourism boom but are reporting disappointing occupancy rates. Restaurants and cafés in the capital are also complaining of low visitor numbers.
"It's much quieter than normal," said Massimo, a waiter at a trattoria in Campo de' Fiori, one of the city's most picturesque squares.
"We're just seeing Italian tourists. There aren't many foreigners. The Americans in particular seem to be staying away." (© Daily Telegraph, London)