Pope-o-flage

The Pope’s Risky Trip

As Pope Francis heads to the Holy Land, the Vatican is beefing up security to deal with threats from ISIS and potential lone-wolf attackers, like the Turk who shot John Paul II.

Franco Origlia/Getty Images

VATICAN CITY—The man who shot John Paul II wants to shake this pope’s hand. But that’s the least of the worries for Francis’s security team.

It doesn’t take much to see that Pope Francis is not exactly risk-averse. He has long defied the same level of papal protection his predecessors enjoyed by shunning the bulletproof Popemobile to ride al fresco—even in uncontrolled crowds. He also lives among ordinary religious people in a relatively unprotected Vatican City hotel rather than the more protected pontifical apartments high above St. Peter’s Square. On a recent trip to a rough Roman suburb, he apologized for the extra police protection. “If something is bothering you about this visit, perhaps it’s the excess of security,” Francis told parishoners in Tor Sapienza. “Please know that I do not agree with them; I agree with you.”

Access to Francis is a big part of his papal appeal as the Catholic version of God’s representative on earth, so it stands to reason that anything coming between him and his followers could be construed as an obstacle to God. But as the pontiff heads to Turkey on Nov. 28-30 for what will be his sixth foreign trip outside of Italy (after a day trip to France on the 25th), his security detail is said to be expressing considerable concern for his safety.

On Thursday, Italy’s leading newspaper Corriere Della Sera ran an extensive report quoting various unnamed security experts on the hidden threats by ISIS and the even bigger fear that a “lone wolf” could pop off the pope.

Apparently the Vatican is even considering sending out drones as a surveillance tool when the pope is in public, though a Vatican spokesman brushed off the idea when asked by The Daily Beast. Whether the story was a reflection of genuine concern, or meant to warn the pope that not everybody loves him, is unclear, but the lone-wolf theory is not as far-fetched as it sounds.

In 1981, Mehmet Ali Ağca shot Pope John Paul II at close range in St. Peter’s Square during a general audience filled with the faithful. The pope survived and security into St. Peter’s Square has been enhanced considerably with metal detectors since then. Ağca, whose motive for shooting the pope was never quite clear, was predictably forgiven by John Paul II during a much-publicized prison visit before he was pardoned by Italy in 2000. Ağca was then extradited to Turkey to serve a sentence for the murder of a journalist. He was released in 2010, and now wants to meet Pope Francis when the pontiff visits Turkey next week.

According to Turkish press reports quoting the would-be papal assassin, Ağca feels that since he’s already met one pope, why not shake hands with another? “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,” Ağca said, according to Turkish press reports that showed Ağca touting the famous picture of John Paul II visiting him in prison. “I am Mehmet Ali Ağca and I would like to meet the pope during this visit,” he reportedly wrote to the Vatican, according to a statement he released.

The Vatican has not commented on whether or not the pope will grant the visit with Ağca, but they are said to be considering whether or not to allow the pope to visit the Turkish border with Iraq, where he has expressed interest in meeting some of the 100,000 Christians fleeing the self-proclaimed Islamic State widely known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL.

The pope’s security detail will have to consider the risks before approving the trip—at least if the cover of the October 2014 issue of the ISIS e-zine Dabiq is any indication of how the pope might be received. The online cover shows a mockup of St. Peter’s Square with a black jihadi flag flying from the central Egyptian obelisk to front a lengthy feature laden with pictures of Vatican City.

The main article called Reflections on the Final Crusade outlines in prophetic terms just how ISIS will crush Christianity. “A man from the Roman Christians will then raise the cross. He will say ‘The cross has prevailed.’ A man from the Muslims will then say, ‘Rather Allah has prevailed,’ and then he will angrily rise and crush the cross,” according to the article. The feature then paints a vicious battle between the Islamic State and European Christians, who are referred to as Romans, ending with this prediction: “This battle ends the era of the Roman Christians, as the Muslims will then advance upon Constantinople and thereafter Rome, to conquer the two cities and raise the flag of the Khilafah over them.”

The magazine also quoted Islamic State spokesman Mohammed al-Adnani, who warned, “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women, by the permission of Allah, the Exalted. If we do not reach that time, then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market,” according to Dabiq. “Every Muslim should get out of his house, find a crusader and kill him... And the Islamic State will remain until its banner flies over Rome.”

When the article came out last month, the Vatican repeated its standard line that it had no specific concerns for the pope’s safety. But at a consistory of cardinals in Vatican City on Monday, Francis made his case. “Recent events, especially in Iraq and Syria, are very worrying,” the pope said, according to Vatican Radio. “We are witnessing a phenomenon of terrorism of previously unimaginable dimensions… This unfair situation requires an adequate response by the international community, as well as and in addition to our constant prayer.”