By Philip Pullella
ASSISI, Italy (Reuters) – Pope Francis visited the birthplace of the Franciscan order in central Italy on Thursday amid some of the tightest security ever seen on a papal trip, in the wake of a string of militant attacks across Europe.
The pope’s brief afternoon trip to Assisi, in central Italy, took place a day after Italian police announced they had increased security around the Vatican and religious sites in Rome. [Idn:L8N1AK1X5]
It was not immediately clear if the heightened security in Rome and Assisi was prompted by last week’s murder of a Catholic priest in a French church. A Vatican spokesman said he was not aware of any specific threats against the pope. [IDn:L8N1AJ31S]
Police put a three-ringed security perimeter around the basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in the lower quarter of Assisi, requiring most people to walk the last few blocks in scorching heat.
They placed large concrete barricades at the entrances of the perimeter, apparently to thwart any attacks similar to the one in Nice, France, last month when a 31-year-old Tunisian drove his truck into a crowd, killing 84 people.
Thousands of people, including journalists, were checked two or three times as they approached the basilica the pope visited and those allowed to enter had to show photo identification matching names on tickets.
Pope Francis, 79, who said at the start of his trip to Poland last week that it was wrong to equate Islam with violence, met the Imam of the nearby city of Perugia, inside the basilica.
The pope who took his name in homage to the saint most associated with peace and protection of the environment, prayed in a small church that St. Francis repaired with his own hands in the early 13th century.
The pope’s trip took place on the 800th anniversary of the so-called “Pardon of Assisi”, a ritual St. Francis founded urging people to seek pardon for their offences to others.
St. Francis founded his order of monks in the small stone church which is now inside a huge basilica built around it in the 17th century.
He was born the son of a prosperous cloth merchant but renounced his wealth to help the poor.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella)