Pope Benedict XVI will begin his first papal visit to a predominantly Muslim
country Nov. 28 when he arrives in Turkey for four days of private meetings,
public masses and other events. The trip, which already has generated some
death threats against the pope, has both Turkish and Vatican security on high
Tensions between Muslims and Benedict XVI flared up inSeptember when the pope made remarks at Germany's University of Regensburg that seemed to refer to Islam as "evil." Although the pope later sought to clarify his comments, the incident reopened Muslim wounds caused by the controversy earlier in the year over cartoons
of the Prophet Mohammed.
In light of recent incidents -- as well as the ongoing militant
threat in Turkey -- security officials in Turkey, Vatican City and Italy
are taking threats against the pope very seriously. On Nov. 2, a Turkish man
fired several shots at the Italian Consulate in Istanbul and threatened to
shoot Benedict XVI during his visit to Turkey. The man, who was subsequently
arrested, is believed to have acted alone. In Turkey, Mehmet Ali Acga, who
attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981, said from prison Sept. 20
that Benedict XVI should not visit Turkey, and suggested that the pontiff's
life would be in danger if he went ahead with his plans.
day, Rome's city prosecutor launched an investigation into threats against
the pope posted on the Internet by Iraqi jihadist groups. The head of the
prosecutor's anti-terrorism department said the investigation would focus on
statements intended to incite people to take action against a head of state.
Because the pope is the head of state of the Vatican, threats against him
receive the same level of attention from intelligence and law enforcement as
do threats against any other head of state. His status as head of state also
affords him the highest level of protection.
At home in Vatican City,
the pope is protected by two modern security corps: the centuries-old Swiss
Guards and the Gendarmerie Corps of the State of Vatican City. Additional
security is provided by plainclothes agents and Italian Carabinieri, federal
police who patrol outside the square and stand ready as sharpshooters atop
buildings during public ceremonies.
While abroad, the pope travels
with a plainclothes security detail of Swiss Guards, which operates in a
manner similar to the U.S. Secret Service (USSS) or the U.S. State
Department's Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), organizations charged with
protecting the president and U.S. diplomats overseas. The Vatican's security
forces are every bit as proficient as the USSS and DSS.
important to note, however, that the host country ultimately is responsible
for protecting visiting heads of state. Thus, Turkey will collect
intelligence on the national level in advance of and during the trip. In
addition to Vatican and Turkish efforts, various other intelligence agencies
will be looking for possible threats to the pope's safety.
Arrangements between Vatican and Turkish security forces would have been
made months before the pope's visit, starting with an agreement between the
two on how they will operate together. As part of the agreement, agents from
Vatican security would have been deployed to Turkey about a month prior to
the visit in order to assess the security situation and determine potential
vulnerabilities at the sites the pontiff will visit. During this time,
Vatican security will be working closely with the Turkish Security General
Directorate and National Intelligence Agency, which will be compiling its own
Sweeps for potential troublemakers already are
under way in the cities the pope will visit, and Turkish police will pick up
suspected subversives and mentally disturbed people who have made threats
against the pope's life. To this end, Vatican security will provide a list of
people who have attempted to contact the pope with threats. As the visit
approaches, Turkish authorities will likely announce that several "thwarted
plots" against the pope have been uncovered during these sweeps.
However, as media coverage heats up in the lead-up to the visit, the
furor over the Regensburg remarks, and possibly the cartoons, could
re-ignite, especially in a country that is more than 99 percent Muslim. In
any case, demonstrations by religious and student groups can be expected,
most likely at pre-authorized locations. In that case, vigilance by security
forces will be high to ensure the protests do not get out of hand.
the pope's arrival date approaches, security forces will take their positions
around the locations on his itinerary. Sweeps for explosives will be
conducted in these areas and countersniper support will be scanning rooftops
and windows. Once in Turkey, Benedict XVI will travel in motorcades of
armored vehicles, which will include decoy cars.
The pope plans to
spend one night in Ankara and two in Istanbul, though information on his
lodgings has not been released. Choices include the Holy See Embassy
Residence in Ankara and the Hilton Istanbul hotel, where U.S. President
George W. Bush stayed on his visit to Turkey in June 2004.
stay would present more security challenges for the pope's protective detail
than would a stay in a state-owned residence. Should he lodge at a hotel,
security will have to run checks on all the other guests staying there during
his visit. Moreover, the day-to-day commercial operations of the hotel will
present many security vulnerabilities, especially with caterers, laundry,
cleaning staff and other personnel constantly coming and going.
residence owned by the Vatican, on the other hand, can be better secured, and
occupants and staff more thoroughly vetted to screen for infiltrators or
individuals with nefarious agendas. There also would be less vulnerability
from caterers, laundry and other hotel staff coming and going.
pope's itinerary includes several stops in Ankara and Istanbul, as well as at
the sites of ancient Christian communities in Smyrna and Ephesus. In Ankara,
the pope will meet with Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and Turkey's
highest Muslim authority, Grand Mufti Ali Bardakoglu, who is deputy prime
minister and head of Turkey's Religious Affairs Directorate. In addition to
Vatican security, the pope will be protected by the high security that
normally surrounds Turkish leaders. These meetings, as well as others with
Turkish Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders, will take place at
controlled venues and will be attended by screened and invited guests only.
These venues also can be easily locked down and screened for improvised
Potentially vulnerable points will be at Meryem
Ana Evi Shrine in Ephesus when the pope celebrates mass there Nov. 29, and at
Istanbul's Cathedral of the Holy Ghost, where he will deliver a homily Dec.
1, the last day of his trip. Although those events are open to the public,
the venues will be thoroughly swept for bombs beforehand, and all
participants and the entire congregation will be screened for weapons and
Even without the tensions surrounding Benedict XVI's
visit to Turkey, the history of attacks and plotted attacks against his
predecessor requires that security be high at all times. The most serious
attack in recent memory came when Acga shot Pope John Paul II twice in the
abdomen as the pope entered St. Peter's Square in an open-air convertible.
Almost a year after that attack, on May 12, 1982, an ultraconservative
Spanish priest who believed the pope was an agent of Moscow approached John
Paul in Fatima, Portugal, with the intent of stabbing him with a bayonet,
though the man was stopped and arrested before he could reach the pontiff. In
plotted to kill Pope John Paul II during a visit to the
Any papal visit to a foreign country presents
significant security challenges. However, given the recent tensions between
Christians and Muslims -- and particularly between this pope and Muslims --
this visit will require an even higher level of vigilance.
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