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Pope Francis pulls out of Easter event at last minute

ROME, Italy — Pope Francis pulled out of a key Easter ceremony at the last minute on Friday, reigniting concerns about the 87-year-old's increasingly frail health.

The Vatican said the pontiff withdrew from the Way of the Cross ceremony to "preserve his health" ahead of other events this weekend, the holiest in the Christian calender.

His armchair had been set out on the hill facing the Colosseum in Rome, where the ceremony was held, but was taken away as the announcement was made just moments before the start.

"To preserve his health ahead of tomorrow's vigil and the Easter Sunday mass, Pope Francis will this evening follow the Way of the Cross at the Colosseum from the Santa Marta Residence" where he lives, the Vatican said in a statement.

The pope had also missed last year's ceremony, which took place shortly after he was released from three nights in hospital with bronchitis, but the decision had been announced in advance.

Francis last month caught what the Vatican called a "light flu" that caused him to cancel some events, and he has on several occasions since asked others to read his speeches.

A Vatican source told AFP there was "no particular concern" about his health Friday.

The decision to pull out was "simply a measure of caution", the source said, adding that the pontiff had appeared "in good shape" earlier in the day.

But the decision will only add to doubts about the ability of the ageing Argentine to govern the worldwide Catholic Church.

The pope has a packed agenda in the week running up to Easter.

Francis had on Friday afternoon presided as planned over a Good Friday mass in St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican.

On Thursday, he washed the feet of 12 women being held at a prison in Rome as part of another Easter rite.

On Sunday, the pontiff is due to preside over the Easter mass in St Peter's Square before giving the "Urbi et Orbi" blessing.

Francis, who became pope in 2013, has suffered a number of health issues in recent years, including knee and hip pain that now sees him regularly use a wheelchair.

In June 2023, he underwent a hernia operation, just weeks after being hospitalised for bronchitis and two years after undergoing major colon surgery.