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article imagePope voices support for virus victims in livestream message

By Dmitry ZAKS (AFP)     Mar 8, 2020 in Internet

Pope Francis expressed solidarity on Sunday with the victims of the novel coronavirus in his first livestreamed prayer from the Vatican.

The disease raging across Italy forced the 83-year-old pontiff to break with centuries of tradition and revert to technology to deliver his Angelus Prayer and weekly message to the world's 1.3 billion Catholics.

The Vatican said Pope Francis was following the orders of Italian authorities who wanted to keep down the number of people who usually converge on Saint Peter's Square to catch a glimpse of the pontiff at his Vatican window.

The contagious disease has killed 233 people and infected 5,883 across Italy in the just two weeks.

"I am close through prayer with the people who suffer from the current coronavirus epidemic," the 83-year-old pope said in a message recorded at the Vatican library.

His address was aired live on a screen before a smaller than usual crowd on the square and via the Vatican website to the wider world.

"I join my brother bishops in encouraging the faithful to live this difficult moment with the strength of faith, the certainty of hope and the fervour of charity," the pope said.

Italy has borne the brunt in Europe of the COVID-19 disease now sweeping the world.

The authorities took the unprecedented step on Sunday of quarantining more than 15 million people -- a quarter of Italy's population -- living in northern regions around the cities of Venice and Milan.

The pope himself has been suffering from a cold for more than a week and has cut down on public appearances.

But he still appeared at his window after recording his message and waved for a few moments to the crowd.

A cheer went up and the pope grinned broadly while looking out onto the sunny square.

"Getting to see the pope in the end was a bit of a bonus," Englishman Steve Povey said after watching the historic livestream airing of the pope's message on the square's big screen.

The Argentine-born pope -- famous for his geniality and gregarious style -- said he felt unnaturally "caged" delivering his message while cooped up in a library.

He said sitting in a chair and staring at the camera felt "a little strange".

"But I see you -- I am close to you," he added.

- Another break Wednesday -

The pope will break with tradition yet again on Wednesday and not appear on Saint Peter's Square for his weekly "general audience".

The Vatican said that appearance will also be livestreamed "to avoid crowds in Saint Peter's Square, as a precautionary measure in view of ongoing concerns about the COVID-19 coronavirus".

The pope's messages traditionally touch on the world's problems of the day.

He expressed alarm last Sunday at the flood of Syrian war refugees trapped at Turkey's closed border with Greece.

The pope asked the faithful again on Sunday to extend a prayer "for the Syrian people, and more specifically for the inhabitants of the northwest of the country who are being forced to flee".

"I reiterate my great apprehension for the inhuman situation of these defenceless people," Pope Francis said.

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