Hundreds of armed police and security personnel were deployed in Rome today as Pope Francis visited the city’s main synagogue, in a visit underlining improved relations between the two faiths.
Francis is the third pope to visit the synagogue after John-Paul II in 1986 and Benedict XVI in 2010.
Rome’s Great Synagogue is located just across the River Tiber from the Vatican, in an area still known as the Ghetto where under the orders of some of Francis’s predecessors, Jews were confined for more than three centuries until their emancipation at the end of the 19th Century.
The pope arrived at 4 pm (1500 GMT) to applause and was met on the synagogue steps by Rome’s chief rabbi Riccardo Di Segni.
Francis in turn greeted some 1,500 invited guests who filled the religious site to witness the pontiff’s visit.
After the deadly attacks in Paris in November, claimed by the Islamic State group, security for the pope’s visit is particularly tight, with basements in the area around the synagogue searched, dustbins sealed and parking banned.
Fears of a Paris-style assault in Rome have seen visitor numbers fall, while soldiers with automatic rifles have become a common sight around the city’s historic centre.
Ties between the Christianity and Judaism, which improved under both John-Paul II and Benedict XVI, have become warmer still under Francis, who has a long-standing friendship with Argentinian rabbi Abraham Skorka, with whom he jointly published a book of conversations about issues of ethics, morality and faith.
As part of his visit, the pope will view two commemorative plaques in the synagogue’s gardens, one marking an incident in 1943 when more than 1,000 Jews were rounded up and deported to the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz and the other a 1983 attack on the building that left 37 injured and one dead.