Counter-terror measures were at the maximum level in the Italian capital since Friday, as tens of thousands of people flocked to the city for the Easter festivities.
Security has already been very high here, and around the Vatican, in the latest months.
Yet, the large inflow of tourists and pilgrims who were expected to reach the city over the 3-day-long Eastern weekend took on a new meaning in the wake of the recent Brussels attacks.
Security was further intensified around over 1,000 “sensitive” targets, including railway and metro stations, airports, embassies, institutions, historical monuments, and places of worship.
Special attention was being paid to those celebrations bound to draw a massive number of people.
On Friday night, the whole area around Rome’s Colosseum was sealed off, and heavily guarded for the annual Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) procession led by Catholic Pope Francis.
Thousands patiently lined up outside the two entrance gates in a quite atmosphere since mid-afternoon. Each bag and backpack was searched. Each person went first through a body inspection, and was then screened by police with hand metal detectors.
Inspections with explosive-detecting dogs had been carried out earlier in the day inside and outside the Colosseum, according to authorities.
“You can feel a bit of tension among people, even though no explicit worries are expressed,” Katia Panello from Rome told Xinhua.
“Yet, we are not scared to be here tonight, and we have not changed our daily routine in the latest months,” the woman added, as they approached the inner space where the candlelight vigil had just begun.
Her husband and her said they “absolutely did not think about not coming”.
The couple were satisfied with the measures in place: police checks were carried out thoroughly, and surveillance had been visibly stepped up, they said.
Yet, they agreed with the Italian government’s proposal that a stronger coordination of European Union (EU) security forces was needed to enhance the chance to defeat terrorism.
“I do believe European intelligence services would achieve better results by working together and sharing their knowledge,” Panello’s husband said.
Ian Smedley from Britain also felt safe enough to join the large crowd gathered around the ancient Roman amphitheatre with his partner, their baby girl, and a couple of friends from Poland.
Visiting the city as tourists, they were not discouraged by the terror alert or the security measures.
“Controls have been very good here, and police around the city were present but not obtrusive,” Smedley told Xinhua.
However, Brussels attacks that killed at least 31 people on Tuesday did leave its mark.
Despite many tried defiantly to keep living their life, the crowd around the Colosseum was smaller this year compared to 2015, when some 40,000 presences had been estimated, according to both Italian media and authorities.
Gian Cesare from Bergamo, an Italian tourist who gave only his first name, admitted Brussels attacks almost made his family change their plan.
“We had this vacation in Rome already planned for the Easter weekend, but my wife was scared and thought of calling off the trip,” the man told Xinhua.
His 16-year-old son also felt worried, and Gian Cesare had almost to “drag both of them here”.
Once amid the multitude gathered at the Colosseum, however, the family looked quite at ease, and felt reassured by the security they found.
“Police cannot do more than what they are doing, and I find they carry out their job efficiently,” he said.
“The situation itself is particularly hard to tackle, since the threat we face is not like that of a conventional war,” the man explained.
“This would be a good reason for European security forces to join their efforts and coordinate better, but I am not confident this will happen any soon,” he added.
The Good Friday vigil was the opening event of a series of Easter celebrations usually attended by large crowds, and a first testing challenge for Italy’s security forces.
Anti-terror units were deployed to reinforce the police and army presence during the whole festivities, and a no-fly zone over Rome’s airspace declared since the Catholic Jubilee kicked off remained in place.
Franco Gabrielli, the prefect of Rome in charge of all the activities regarding the Jubilee, earlier this week stressed that “the level of attention was absolutely in line with the situation, not just for the special events like the Via Crucis, but for everything.”
Another vigil was to be held in St. Peter’s basilica on Saturday evening, while 15,000 to 20,000 people were expected to attend the Easter mass celebrated by the pope in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday.