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The Vatican Christmas tree is lit up during a ceremony in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican December 9, 2016. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi - RTSVFLA

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By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Vatican authorities froze more than two million euros in cases of suspected money laundering in 2016 as part of Pope Francis' drive to clean up the finances of the Holy See, its chief magistrate said on Saturday.

Gian Pietro Milano, whose official title is Promoter of Justice, made the disclosure during his annual address on the state of the Vatican's criminal justice system.

Milano gave no details in his speech but added that the total amount of suspect money frozen between 2013 and 2016 was about 13 million euros.

The money was frozen following alerts from the Vatican Financial Intelligence Authority (AIF), which Francis has given more operative power.

Milano did not say how much of the money was later unblocked following investigations but that in 2016 two cases led to indictments and three were shelved.

The Vatican, a sovereign state surrounded by Rome, has enacted a number of provisions to cleanse its finances and make them more transparent in recent years, particularly since Francis' election in 2013.

Moneyval, the financial monitoring body of the Council of Europe, said in its latest review in December 2015 that the Vatican had made great strides in cleaning up its scandal-plagued bank and other financial departments.

The watchdog, which evaluates how a country's financial legislation and practices comply with international standards, said the Vatican had addressed many previous deficiencies.

But it said the Vatican should be much more aggressive with prosecutions and indictments.

In late 2015, an investigation was opened after an internal report said a department of the Holy See that oversees real estate and investments was used in the past for possible money laundering, insider trading and market manipulation.

In 2014, Milano froze millions of euros in bank accounts owned by two former Vatican bank managers and a lawyer as part of an investigation into the sale of Vatican-owned real estate.

There have been no indictments on those cases so far.

In his speech on Saturday, Milano said the Vatican had "closed the gap" to meet international standards regarding monitoring, reporting, investigating and prosecutions.

He said 17 investigations of suspected financial crimes were still underway.

Investigative cooperation from other countries, particularly Italy, had improved but that there were still many bureaucratic delays, he said.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Helen Popper)

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