Rome is set to reopen some of its Catholic churches after an order for their closure to slow Italy's outbreak of coronavirus was disputed by Pope Francis, who called the move 'drastic'.
Cardinal Angelo De Donatis has today issued a new decree, stating that some of Rome's churches will stay open, despite his initial order to close all of the religious sites just a day ago.
The rethink comes after Pope Francis remarked that 'Drastic measures are not always good' and the cardinal's decision was criticised by Catholics on social media.
Many accused the cardinal of caving in to the government after he announced the closures in his initial decree on Thursday night.
Andrea Fauro said on social media the move had put 'Christ in quarantine'.
Catholic bishops around the world were deciding how to deal with the pandemic in their own dioceses and what guidance they should give to the 1.3 billion-member Church in places from Little Rock to Lyon.
In improvised remarks at the start of his morning Mass today, Pope Francis said: 'Drastic measures are not always good'.
The service streamed on the internet and televised live without outside participants in order to limit gatherings of people.
Francis prayed that God give pastors 'the strength and even the capacity to choose the best means to help' those suffering from the pandemic 'so that they can provide measures that do not leave the holy faithful people of God alone'.
Hours after the pope spoke, De Donatis modified the decree. Whereas most of Rome's more than 750 churches were to have been closed until April 3, the new decree says all parish churches and those run by religious communities will remain open.
Those that will close number fewer than 300 and do not have a parish community or are visited mostly by tourists.
Previously, only Masses had been cancelled because of the coronavirus outbreak. Individual bishops can decide whether to keep their churches open, and many are open in parts of Italy.
The pope is bishop of Rome and the cardinal is his administrative vicar.
The Italian government on Wednesday closed virtually every commercial activity in the country apart from pharmacies, food shops and other stores selling essential goods and services.
Customers must enter a few at a time, keep a safe distance from each other and wear surgical masks in some cases.
Critics said being allowed to pray in a church, albeit with precautions similar to those imposed on stores, should be seen as an essential service.
'My heart is in pieces,' Father Maurizio Mirilli, a pastor of a Rome parish said in an anguished tweet on Thursday. 'I have to close everything, even the church ... I feel like a father whose children have been snatched from him.
The Vatican has already shut down St Peter's Square, St Peter's Basilica and the Vatican museums to tourists, with weddings and funerals called off.
But the total church closure was not even implemented during World War II when the Nazis and Italian fascists kept Pope Pius XII confined to the Vatican - with some places of worship keeping their doors open.
The cardinal's initial statement said access to 'churches of the Diocese of Rome open to the public - and more generally to religious buildings of any kind open to the public - is forbidden to all the faithful'.
The statement added that monasteries would remain open to 'communities that habitually use them as residents'.
'This provision is for the common good,' De Donatis wrote.
De Donatis is officially the Cardinal Vicar of Rome, standing in for the Pope who is technically Bishop of Rome but regarded as too busy for local duties.
The cardinal said he was finally moved to close Rome's churches in his initial decree by 'the even more binding restrictions placed on the ordinary movement of people'.
Italy's government has imposed an ever-growing crackdown as the virus continues to spread, with all shops now closed except for food stores and pharmacies.
The Pope himself has been kept away from the public since he appeared to have a cold during an Ash Wednesday service last week.
Pope Francis has been appearing via a Vatican live-stream and has complained of feeling 'caged'.
The 83-year-old was forced to miss his weekly Wednesday appearance on St Peter's Square where he often hugs and shake hands with the faithful.
The pontiff also had to read his traditional Sunday Angelus Prayer into a camera instead of his usual window overlooking the square.
Francis is thought to have tested negative for coronavirus last week after appearing visibly ill and cancelling a series of events.
The Vatican has recorded one Covid-19 infection and is awaiting the results of another person who attended one of its functions at the start of the month.
Italy as a whole has now recorded more than a thousand virus deaths after 189 new fatalities took the total to 1,016 last night.
The number of daily infections rose to 2,651 from 2,313 on Wednesday, reaching 15,113 overall.
The virus is thought to be more dangerous for older people and at Italy has one of the oldest populations in the world.
Italian streets have been left empty by the unprecedented quarantine as tourists stay away from usually crowded landmarks.
Famous piazzas in Rome, Florence and Venice have been deserted except for sanitation workers spraying them with disinfectant.
Restrictions were tightened even further on Wednesday night when bars and restaurants were shut down, leaving only a few shops open.
The quarantine is in place until at least April 3, but top health official Walter Ricciardi told Italian TV yesterday that his countrymen should prepare for a 'long war'.
Italy's government has also announced plans to boost the economy with extra spending, with particular fears for the tourist industry.
Meanwhile, time is running out for Britons to return home from Italy with the last flights leaving tonight and neighbours shutting their borders.
Austria has ordered a halt to flights and trains from Italy while Slovenia has begun imposing controls at its border with the country.
Switzerland said yesterday that the border remained open for commuters with work permits, but nine border crossings have been closed.
A spokeswoman for Germany's Deutsche Bahn said that the only service it had linking it to Italy, between Munich and Venice, has also been suspended.
France's national train company SNCF said on Tuesday it was 'waiting for advice' about how to proceed regarding services to Italy.
Since late February, French staff on cross-border SNCF trains have been getting off before the Italian border and being replaced by Italian colleagues.
British expats who are still in in Italy have described eerie scenes and fears over their finances after Italy was placed in lockdown.
Philip Jones, 53, from Swansea, moved to Venice with his wife eight years ago, and works as a writer, teacher and translator.
'We're in the period now when the tourist industry (usually) really starts to kick in and you start to see significant numbers of visitors,' he said.
He added: 'I was in Piazza San Marco last Friday morning, even before the main restrictions came in, and it was empty at 10 o'clock in the morning, absolutely empty. It's usually packed.
'I've never seen the canals as empty as they are now, I've never seen such a lack of water traffic.
'It's been amazing, it's like somebody has turned the key and switched the visitors off.'
Others expressed concerns about the impact the crisis would have on the economy, in particular part-time workers and the self-employed.
Melissa Stott, 47, originally from Bishop's Stortford, has lived in Italy for 24 years and works as a self-employed music and dance teacher.
'My work has completely stopped which I am really going to feel next month or the month after,' she said.
'This is the third week and we've got another three weeks after this, so six weeks with no pay. Any hours I don't do I don't get paid for.'
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.