Machine guns, no-fly zone surround Pope's opening of Holy Year

A policeman patrols in front of the Vatican in Rome on Dec 4, 2015.
A policeman patrols in front of the Vatican in Rome on Dec 4, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of faithful backed up for blocks at the Vatican on Tuesday (Dec 8), undergoing the strictest security checks in living memory as Pope Francis began Holy Year with a call to set aside "fear and dread".

From early in the morning, police checked pilgrims, reporters, diplomats and even priests entering the area starting several blocks from St. Peter's Square.

Some underwent two body and bag searches as they made their way forward.

The Catholic Holy Year, or Jubilee, has long been expected to draw millions to Rome but is now opening in the immediate aftermath of attacks in Paris and California.

"The risk of terrorism will never be zero, we cannot provide absolute security, but we are working to attain the level of security that people rightly ask for," Rome police chief Franco Gabrielli said.

In his homily of a Mass in the square, Francis urged the faithful to have courage in their spiritual and daily lives:"Let us set aside all fear and dread, for these do not befit men and women who are loved. Instead, let us experience the joy of encountering that grace which transforms all things," he said.

During the year-long celebrations, one of the most important events in the 1.2 billion-member Roman Catholic Church, faithful make pilgrimages to Rome and other religious sites around the world.

This is only the 29th Holy Year in the Church since the tradition started more than 700 years ago. The pope was officially starting the year after the Mass by opening a the"Holy Door" of St Peter's Basilica, which is usually bricked up.

Holy Years normally take place every 25 years unless a pope decrees an extraordinary one to bring attention to a particular need or topic. The next Holy Year had been scheduled for 2025 before Francis decided to call a special one on the theme of mercy, a major part of his push for a less judgmental and more inclusive Church.

Tight security had always been expected but it was ratcheted up after the attacks by Islamist militants in Paris and California.


The airspace over most of Rome was closed and authorities banned the transport of petrol, gas, weapons, explosives and fireworks.

A no-go zone was instituted for vehicles around the Vatican and rubbish bins sealed or removed.

Soldiers augmented regular police for a total security force of around 3,000, making the area around the Vatican sometimes seem more like one where a demonstration was expected instead of a religious event.

"Regarding the security, it made me afraid. Those who come here as pilgrims meet the soldiers wearing machine guns, it's scary, you feel threatened," said Italian tourist Daniela Santi.

Hotels association Federalberghi said bookings were down about 20 per cent in the Rome area, with many cancellations, and shop owners complained of a fall in sales. "The Paris attacks have caused a lot of uneasiness," said Vincenzo Modica, who owns a souvenir shop near the Vatican.

According to the Vatican website, a Holy Year should be a time of reconciliation with adversaries and an occasion to promote solidarity, hope and justice in the world.

Faithful who make pilgrimages to religious sites or do good works during a Holy Year can receive indulgences, or the remission of punishment for sins, under certain conditions.