Pope presides at Good Friday Colosseum procession

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Thousands of people, including nuns, families with toddlers, and young tourists, patiently endured exceptionally tight security checks to pray along with Pope Francis at the traditional Way of the Cross Good Friday procession at the Colosseum.

Francis, wearing a plain white coat, presided over the evening procession from a rise overlooking the popular tourist monument as faithful took turns carrying a tall, cross and meditations were recited to encourage reflection on Jesus' suffering and crucifixion.

Hours before the evocative, candlelit ceremony, pilgrims underwent the first of two rounds of security checks that started while they still were blocks away from the ancient arena. There was a heavier-than-usual police presence keeping watch on every aspect of the event.  

Anti-terrorism measures have been heightened for large public crowds after several vehicle attacks in Nice, Berlin and other European cities. 

Police opened handbags and backpacks. They checked computers, and, in at least one case, asked an Italian woman to open a package. It turned out to be a tray of pastries, and the woman good-naturedly offered one of the sweets to the officer.

Streets surrounding the Colosseum were closed to traffic, armored vehicles blocked intersections, bomb-sniffing dogs were used and police checked chemical toilets with scanners for explosives near the Colosseum.

"I believe that we have a situation in which we Europeans have to unite and take the issue of security very seriously," Jose de Laoz, a businessman  from Spain, said while the  security sweeps were conducted near the Colosseum.

Terrorism's repercussions were being felt in Christian communities across the Mediterranean. In Egypt, Coptic churches announced that Easter services would be limited to prayers, without festivities. The measure was taken after twin bombings killed 45 people at churches on Palm Sunday.

In Rome, the Good Friday gathering was calm as participants clutched candles in the silence of a warm night. Some parents hoisted children on their shoulders so they could watch. Many people kept their eyes fixed on a towering cross, studded with lit candles, that glowed against the Colosseum's ancient stone.

Hours earlier at the Vatican, Francis prostrated himself in prayer during a Good Friday service in St. Peter's Basilica. The 80-year-old pope lay for several minutes before the central altar.

Papal preacher the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa told the faithful in the basilica they were recalling the "violent death" of Jesus 2,000 years ago, even though most days now bring news if violent deaths, because the crucifixion "changed forever the very face of death." 

Cantalamessa called the cross the definitive "'No' of God to violence, injustice, hate, lies."



Patricia Thomas contributed to this report from Rome.  Follow Frances D'Emilio on Twitter.