Pope Francis is to treat some of Rome's poorest people to a day at the circus today – and animal rights activists aren't happy.
The Vatican has arranged for 2,100 people to attend a show at the Medrano Circus on the outskirts of Rome. Among them are homeless people, a group of prisoners and children from needy families, along with volunteers and caregivers.
However, the circus has experienced negative publicity in recent years. In 2016 a court in Padua handed an eight-month suspended sentence to an administrator after accusations by activists that its animals were mistreated.
Salvatore Mendola, a manager and spokesman for the circus, said the charges were denied and the case was still in the appeals process.
He told Reuters on Wednesday that the circus was now under a different administrator.
'We treat our animals very well. We have to get permission to hold shows in each city and are inspected by veterinarians before permission is given. Our animals are super-controlled.'
Gaia Angelini, who heads the exotic animals division of the Italian animal protection group LAV, said: 'We are surprised to see the Vatican doing this.'
She said the use of animals in circuses was being phased out in many countries, including Italy, because it was now commonly accepted that keeping animals in cages and moving them from place to place was harmful.
'It is a bit surprising that a noble gesture of solidarity like this one will also involve the exploitation of the weakest, in this case, animals,' she told Reuters on Wednesday.
The Vatican said a mobile medical clinic would be on hand outside the circus tent on Thursday to treat visitors' routine health problems.
At a recent General Audience, Pope Francis told the performers of the Medrano Circus: 'Circus performers create beauty... This is good for the soul, for we greatly need beauty!'
The Papal Almoner, Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, whose office is responsible for the event, said: 'This gift given by the Circus – who with constancy, effort, and many sacrifices seek to create and offer beauty for themselves and others – will hopefully become for our poorest brothers and sisters an encouragement to overcome the bitterness and difficulties of life, which often seem insurmountable.'
Braian Casartelli, part of the family who has directed the circus for seven generations, said his team 'seeks to give its whole heart to transmit happiness and passion' through their performances, according to Vatican News.
He said Thursday's event would be 'a marvelous evening in honour of the many people of Rome who live in difficulty.'
Francis has made care for the poor one of the hallmarks of his papacy. In recent years the Vatican has set up places for the poor to get showers, haircuts and shaves near the Vatican.
Francis has also offered them a private tour of the Sistine Chapel and last November hosted about 7,000 people for a gourmet meal at the Vatican.