Rome: Pope Francis on Tuesday prayed for the protection of Rome from the "threat of the malign," in a public display of support for city authorities battling mafia influence.
Just days after the Italian capital was rocked by revelations that an organised criminal gang with links to neo-fascist terrorism has been stealing millions from city hall, Francis took the opportunity of a rare public appearance on the streets of Rome to warmly embrace centre-left mayor Ignazio Marino.
The pontiff then included a pointed reference to the city in a public prayer to the Virgin Mary to mark the Immaculate Conception, one of the most important feast days on the Catholic calendar.
"Know that evil has no power over you, you fill us with hope and strength in the daily struggle we have to wage against the threat of the malign," the 77-year-old leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics said in a prayer pronounced before thousands of believers and well-wishers packed into the surrounding narrow streets.
"Animated by this hope, today, we invoke your maternal protection for us, for our families, for this city and for the entire world," Francis said.
Marino, who has been told he should get a bodyguard in case of reprisals over last week's anti-mafia crackdown, said the pope had encouraged him to keep going.
"We exchanged a few words before the prayer and I told him I was feeling a heavy weight of responsibility this week. The Holy Father offered me encouragement and said he would pray for me and for Rome."
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who is from the same Democratic Party as Marino, earlier said it was still unclear whether the Rome scandal amounted to a system of spaghetti-style kickbacks or real mafia infiltration.
"It is up to the judiciary to tell us that but we will not leave the capital in the hands of thieves," Renzi said.
"We will keep Rome clean because she is too big and too beautiful to be left to the lowlifes out there."