Pope Francis expresses solidarity with coronavirus victims

By AFP

Only a few of the 12,000 or so faithful who turned out to see him on Saint Peter's Square were wearing face masks.

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Pope Francis expressed his solidarity with those hit by the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus on Wednesday, praising those working to battle the virus.

Italy has suffered the worst outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Europe, with 374 cases of the disease and 12 deaths.

"I would like to express my closeness to the coronavirus patients and to the health workers who are treating them, as well as to the civil authorities," the pope said at his weekly audience at the Vatican.

Only a few of the 12,000 or so faithful who turned out to see him on Saint Peter's Square were wearing face masks.

However at the end of the audience, 83-year-old Francis did not leave on his "popemobile" as usual but instead took the time to shake hands with tens of the congregation and kissed some of the children present, an AFP photographer reported.

Pope Francis is known for not shying away from hugging the faithful or accepting kisses on his cheek or forehead.

However, a year ago he explained his reticence for allowing people to kiss his ring, explaining the practice could spread germs.

In his Ash Wednesday homily marking the beginning of Lent, the pope exhorted the world's 1.3 billion Catholics to "switch off the television and open the Bible".

"It's the time to switch off from your mobile phone and to connect to the Gospel," he said, deploring what he called the recent trend towards a world "polluted by too much verbal violence, by so many offensive and harmful words, amplified by (social) networks."