NAPLES, Italy (Reuters) - Fear of H1N1 flu will stop devout Neapolitans from performing the time-honoured ritual of kissing the blood of their patron Saint Gennaro when the city's annual festival begins later this month.
The decision to forbid kissing of the glass phial containing the saint's blood was taken reluctantly by ecclesiastical and city authorities on Monday, and has brought protests from local politicians.
The phial will be put on display in the city's cathedral for a week from Sept. 19 and the faithful will be allowed to touch it only with their foreheads.
Marco Di Lello, national co-ordinator of the Socialist Party, said the ban would "fuel the psychosis (over flu) which risks becoming unstoppable", and appealed to the archbishop of Naples to try to have the ban revoked.
Last week, a 51-year-old man became Italy's first fatal victim of the H1N1 flu virus, popularly known as swine flu, when he died in a Naples hospital.
In one of Italy's best-known festivals, Saint Gennaro's dried blood is said to liquefy twice a year, 17 centuries after his death. Some Neapolitans fear disaster may strike the city if the "miracle" does not occur.
Legend has it that when Gennaro was beheaded by pagan Romans in 305 A.D., a Neapolitan woman soaked up his blood with a sponge and preserved it in a glass phial.
The substance usually turns to liquid on Sept. 19, the saint's feast day, and on the first Saturday in May. The "miracle" was first recorded in 1389, more than 1,000 years after Gennaro's martyrdom.
More scientifically minded sceptics say the phenomenon is due to chemicals present in the phial whose viscosity changes when it is stirred or moved.
Italy has not been among the nations hardest hit by the H1N1 flu virus, which has spread to at least 177 countries and caused at least 2,800 deaths, the World Health Organisation says.