In midst of mafia scandal, Pope prays for protection of Rome

Pope Francis (at front in white frock) leads a prayer at the statue of Virgin Mary during the annual feast of the Immaculate Conception at Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Steps) in Rome on Monday. -- PHOTO:AFP 
Pope Francis (at front in white frock) leads a prayer at the statue of Virgin Mary during the annual feast of the Immaculate Conception at Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Steps) in Rome on Monday. -- PHOTO:AFP 

ROME (AFP) - In the midst of a mafia scandal that has shaken the city, Pope Francis on Monday prayed to the Virgin Mary to protect Rome from the "threat of the malign".

In what appeared to be typically topical reference to last week's revelations that an organised criminal gang with links to neo-fascist terrorism has been stealing millions from the Italian capital, Francis conspicuously included the city in his high-profile public prayer to mark the Immaculate Conception, one of the most important feast days on the Catholic calendar.

Having made the short trip from the Vatican into the historic centre of Rome, the Argentinian pontiff observed tradition by laying a wreath at the foot of a towering column which supports a statue of the Madonna close to one of the city's most celebrated landmarks, the Spanish Steps.

"Know that evil has no power over you, you fill us with hope and strength in the daily struggle we have to wage every day against the threat of the malign," the 77-year-old leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics said in a prayer pronounced before thousands of believers and well-wishers packed into the surrounding narrow streets.

"Animated by this hope, today, we invoke your maternal protection for us, for our families, for this city and for the entire world," Francis said.

In keeping with a relatively recent tradition (dating back to 1958), the pope leaves the wreath, which is then placed on the statue by city firemen.

The feast of the Immaculate Conception celebrates the tenet of Catholic doctrine which holds that the mother of Jesus Christ was conceived and born without sin - contrary to the popular misconception that it refers to the belief that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus.

It is a national holiday in many predominately Catholic countries. As such, for many it represents the start of Christmas festivities, both religious and secular.

Rome police last week named 100 people including a former mayor as being under investigation as part of a major probe into organised crime in the city.

Twenty nine suspects have been detained, including alleged ringleader Massimo Carminati, a one-eyed convicted mobster who was a figure in the neo-fascist terror movements that blighted Italian society in the 1970s and 1980s.

The pope, who is of Italian heritage, takes a keen interest in events in Italy. He has regularly spoken out on the plight of migrants trying to reach the country by boat from Africa. And last month he described anti-refugee violence in Rome as symptomatic of a "social emergency" in the recession-bound country.