Vatican Souvenir Shops Caught Selling Fake Papal Blessings

While Rome officials fret over terror and ISIS, fraudsters are trying to make a killing on the Holy Jubilee by selling fraudulent blessings and tickets to free events.

12.15.15 5:30 PM ET

VATICAN CITY — The labyrinth of cobbled streets crisscrossing the famed Borgo Pio near St. Peter’s Square have always been among this city’s most unholy. It is here where kitsch meets irreverence on the sacred souvenir market, with items like pope soap-on-a-rope and bobblehead Pope Francis sculptures for sale alongside Virgin Mary prayer cards and bedazzled Mother Teresa rosaries.

These streets are also where anti-corruption cops recently discovered a rocking business in fake papal blessings and other counterfeit religious relics tied to the Jubilee year of Mercy inaugurated by Francis last week. The sting operation, dubbed Jubilaeum, netted more than 1 million fake trinkets in the week since the event started. “It’s not just about security for fear of ISIS,” Renato Fisichella, head of the Jubilee organizing committee, said last week. “There has to be security to watch out for people’s dignity.”

The Vatican is especially concerned with the discovery of some 3,500 counterfeit parchments (valued at more than $75,000) purporting to hold special papal blessings—they were actually produced in a makeshift print shop in the back of a souvenir store near the Vatican gates. The genuine blessed parchments are produced inside Vatican City and are only available from authorized souvenir shops for around $10-$25, with proceeds going to papal charities. And they actually do contain papal blessings for events like births, weddings, and anniversaries, written in a fancy typeface for which the Vatican holds the patent.

Unsuspecting pilgrims who purchased the knockoffs written in a lesser calligraphic script were even asked to complete a form with their personal details, which the shifty vendors promised to submit in the Holy See benediction register in line with the real blessing procedure. A stack of completed cards was discovered along with the fakes. Authorities have no idea how many fake blessings were sold before the racket was discovered. “I can’t believe anyone would sell a fake blessing,” a shopkeeper selling linen dishtowels with crosses and the likeness of the Virgin Mary on the Borgo Pio told The Daily Beast. “That is one step too far.”

Authorities also discovered more than 500 other religious gadgets containing unauthorized papal seals being sold as originals, as well as vendors selling tickets for free events. One shop even sold tickets to walk through the Vatican’s newly opened Holy Doors even though there is no entrance charge, and there is no one to give the fake tickets to once pilgrims pass through the security controls.

Pilgrims who do walk through the doors at any time during the Holy Jubilee year are granted an indulgence if they are pure of heart and follow up crossing the threshold with a heart-felt confession. The holy year indulgences are thought to lessen the load of penance for sins that have been forgiven and faithful believe they can even knock off time in purgatory for those who get stuck on their way to heaven.

Police say they have written nearly 9,000 complaints against businesses involved in the various rackets, including one in which a shop was selling medicine promising to cure cancer through divine intervention. Many of the counterfeit goods are reportedly sold to stores by either Chinese or Senegalese gangs who run a sort of do-it-yourself business in fake holy goods, assembling them as supply demands.

“The Jubilee has been attacked by crooks and fraudsters,” said Italy’s Interior Minister, Angelino Alfano, when he announced the results of the Jubilaeum sting operation. “And we were prepared for the contrary.”