Pope Francis has begun the first of several Holy Week ceremonies that will be held behind closed doors this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Normally, tens of thousands of Roman Catholics and pilgrims, clutching olive branches, would have flocked to an outdoor mass led by the pontiff.

Instead, Francis was leading the ceremony inside the shelter of St Peter's Basilica, which seemed even more cavernous than usual because it was so empty.

Besides his aides, a few invited prelates, nuns and laypeople were present, sitting solo in the first pews and staggered, so they could stay a couple of metres apart to reduce risk of contagion.

Wearing red robes and appearing pensive, Francis blessed braided palms held by the others, then held one himself.

The Vatican has said there are seven cases of Covid-19 among residents or employees of the tiny independent city state.

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