Pope-Shooter Ali Agca’s Very Weird Vatican Visit

The would-be pope killer loves to be in front of the cameras, and the press in Italy is happy to oblige. But he cultivates conspiracies, he doesn’t resolve them.

Adnkronos International/AP

ROME — On Saturday, Turkish terrorist Ali Agca stood in the very square where, more than three decades ago, he tried to kill Pope John Paul II. The shooter, who served 19 years in a Roman prison, then ten more in a Turkish one, wore an elegant dark suit and carried a bouquet of white roses to commemorate, he said, the 31st anniversary of the day JPII forgave him for firing the near-fatal shots.

Reporters watched closely as Agca, 56, passed through the metal detectors installed after the assassination attempt. He put the flowers on the papal tomb inside St. Peter’s basilica, and only then was he arrested for illegally entering Italy. After two nights in detention, he was scheduled to be deported back to Turkey on Monday.

Clearly Agca likes publicity. But his motives for shooting John Paul II have remained a mystery shrouded in multiple conspiracy theories.

What’s known is that on May 13, 1981, as the pontiff was rolling through St. Peter’s Square in an open popemobile, Agca shot him at close range with a Browning 9mm pistol. One bullet narrowly missed the pope’s heart. The other passed through his abdomen.

Before that moment, Agca had been known in his own country as a member of the violent neo-fascist group called the Grey Wolves at a time when Turkey was descending into chaos and a military coup was imminent. In 1979, Agca murdered the left-wing head of a major Turkish newspaper, was sentenced to life in prison, then managed to escape and go to Bulgaria.

When Agca was arrested after shooting the pope in 1981, he first told authorities that he had acted alone, but later said he was a henchman for the Bulgarian secret service carrying out a Russian KGB plot to kill the pope. The Kremlin supposedly wanted to rid itself of the Polish pope, whose had enormous influence on the struggle for freedom in Eastern Europe. But to follow the threads of conspiracy is to get tangled quickly in a web of conjecture and innuendo, and it’s conceivable the self-aggrandizing Agca embraced that story line to give meaning to his act of crazy violence against a hugely symbolic figure.

After serving time for that attempted murder of the pope, Agca as was extradited to Turkey where he served ten more years in prison for the murder of the newspaper editor. Then he came to Rome last week with the flowers in his hand. In addition to visiting the tomb of John Paul, who died of natural causes in 2005, Agca asked to see his successor, Pope Francis. But the current pontiff, for reasons one might fully understand, declined to meet the would-be papal assassin. “He has put flowers on the tomb of John Paul II,” said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, “I think that is enough.”

Agca also had requested a meeting with Francis in November when the pontiff visited Turkey, but the Vatican refused even to acknowledge that request. So Agca wrote an open letter: “Pope Francis, who seeks to boost peace and brotherhood at a time the world is going through a political, economic, and humanitarian crisis, is welcome in Turkey,” Agca declared.

Undeterred by the snub in November, and denied a visa to Italy, Agca made plans for clandestine travel to Vatican City. He told the Italian newspaper La Stampa that, with the help of unnamed accomplices, he left Turkey last week, traveling first by airline and then by car through Serbia before crossing the Austrian border unnoticed. He said he walked the last part of his journey.

“I felt the necessity to make this gesture,” he told reporters as he posed in St. Peter’s square with his white roses. “I returned to the place where he performed a miracle”—presumably by surviving Agca’s assassination attempt.

As if all that were not enough, before placing his flowers on John Paul’s tomb, Agca accused the Vatican of hiding Emanuela Orlandi, who disappeared in 1983 at the age of 15. Orlandi’s father worked for the Vatican at the time, and her disappearance has been the subject of another long-standing conspiracy theory suggesting she was nabbed by Vatican insiders and mafiosi who sought to silence her father after he stumbled on damning evidence about links between the Holy See and an underworld boss.

Agca claims to have heard details of the girl’s case while he was in Italy’s prison system, and has written to her family in the past claiming, “She is still alive, and her safety is guaranteed.” If so, she would now be almost 47 years old.

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On Monday, lawyers for Emanuela’s brother, Pietro Orlandi, sought to block Agca’s expulsion until he can be questioned in his sister’s disappearance. Orlandi told The Daily Beast that Agca might be lying, but he should still be heard. “There are too many mysteries not to check out every lead,” Orlandi said. “It is negligent to ignore this one.”

In an interview from a holding cell at Rome’s Fiumicino airport before he was scheduled to be deported, Agca told La Repubblica newspaper that he was treated well. “During this trip, I did as a lone wolf, I risked a lot,” he said. "But I did it, and for me it was a great adventure.”