Will Jihadis Hijack the Vatican’s Jubilee Year?

Rome is bracing for the opening of its celebration year amid worries that 25 million Catholic pilgrims will fall prey to terrorists.

Andrew Medichini/AP

ROME — Sometimes it’s better to just stay silent rather than call attention to obvious flaws. That could certainly be considered the case when it comes to Rome’s readiness—or seeming lack thereof—ahead of the Vatican’s Holy Jubilee Year of Mercy that kicks off Dec. 8 with the opening of the holy year doors of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Not only is the city a veritable construction site with most Jubilee projects barely underway or slated for completion into the new year, but security forces admit there is no way they can possibly protect pilgrims from becoming prey for terrorists.

The previous Jubilee, under Pope John Paul II in 2000, coincided with the millennium celebrations, and the city took more than seven years to prepare. The church’s event this year follows one of the worst terrorist attacks in Europe, and the city has less than a month to somehow beef up its security enough to detect and deter any threat of attack. The gathering is expected to draw 25 million Catholic pilgrims over 12 months, during which they will have thrice-weekly opportunities to hear Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square, which has been described as something like rounding up sheep for a cull.

Since the Paris attacks, many hotels and tour groups have reported cancellations.

“We are preparing for a Jubilee in the time of ISIS,” Italy’s security czar, Franco Gabrielli, who has been given the daunting task of managing security for the event in Rome in the absence of a mayor, said at a press conference laying out the 128-page dossier of plans Friday. “We even have 2,000 extra men dedicated to security.”

Those 2,000 won’t be on duty all at once—“unless there is an event”—and include counterterrorism officials, undercover cops, and snipers who will be atop Rome’s churches during Jubilee-related events. Gabrielli says most of the city of Rome will also be a “no-fly-zone” zone for the entire year, blocking major air traffic from the city’s main airports along with drones and ultra-lite aircraft—the latter two categories, he says, are subject to being shot down if they are spotted.

He also says there will be “special patrols in the periphery of the city based on demographic concerns,” which is a not-so-subtle way of saying they are paying attention to areas where ethnic groups tend to live. Those areas include the city’s refugee centers, mosques, and squat houses. And there will be extra checks at airports and ports, though not if it interferes with the Schengen rules under which Europeans can travel unhindered, he says, making it unclear what extra checks will be in place.

But for all the security that is being touted, there’s much concern that it just won’t be enough. At the press conference Friday, the Jubilee security panel had to defend its readiness to such an extent that it sounded like they were trying to convince themselves, not the press, they are ready. After warning against reporting rumors and false alarms without “an extra check for validity,” they addressed questions like whether or not the Rome cops’ bulletproof vests are too old to be effective. (Apparently they are good for a full 10 years.) They were also held to the fire on whether or not the type of surveillance it would take to thwart an attack ought to already be in place by now to be effective and whether they had anyone under surveillance at the moment, after Italy’s Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni told RAI3 news earlier that authorities are actively searching for five jihadis whose names were given to them by the FBI. The Jubilee security team seemed caught unaware of the news.

One of the reasons that the country lags behind is that Italy, along with many other European nations, has had to tighten its budget over the last several years. At Rome’s Fiumicino airport, there are 40 percent fewer security personnel than there were for the last Jubilee, said Alessandro Di Battista, a member of parliament for the FiveStar movement, adding that “many of them aren’t even able to hit a moving target.”

It’s little wonder that the FBI warned Italian authorities (and Americans) last week that St. Peter’s Square is a high-priority terrorism target “to be avoided,” along with the Duomo and La Scala opera house in Milan. In an email alert sent to all U.S. citizens in Italy, the U.S. embassy in Rome warned of potential attacks on those popular sites along with “general venues such as churches, synagogues, restaurants, theatres, and hotels in both cities are possible targets as well.

“Terrorist groups may possibly utilize similar methods used in the recent Paris attacks,” the warning read. “The Italian authorities are aware of these threats.”

Not exactly a thumbs-up review for travel to Italy.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

What makes matters worse is a palpable sense of paranoia around the country that starts at the top. A La Stampa correspondent told The Daily Beat that on the island of Sicily, a woman was hauled into the police station for playing Arabic music loud in her car. Muslim-run businesses have reported a drop in business and racist graffiti on the walls.

On Thursday, Gabrielli stopped short of a blatant accusation when he asked the Islamic community in Italy to “take a position” on this month’s terrorist attacks. “It’s absurd to say that all Muslims are terrorists,” he said on camera to an Italian journalist. “But it is undeniable that all terrorists come from that context.” When pressed by the reporter whether all Muslims should be under surveillance, he first said Italy just didn’t have the manpower for that, before tempering his comments. “That would be discriminatory,” he said smiling slyly. “It can’t be done.”

Since the Paris attacks last week, there have been dozens of false alarms, including eight emergency calls in Rome on Thursday alone, which included the discovery of left baggage at Fiumicino, a forgotten suitcase at a bar near the Vatican, and no less than five suspect packages in the city’s subways, which caused police to stop the entire system four different times. On Friday, more abandoned packages were found in the city’s underground, prompting some to joke about why no one has noticed all the garbage before. A mentally ill man apparently waved a rifle at Rome’s San Giovanni hospital, which caused the U.S. embassy to send out another alert with the subject, “Emergency Message for U.S. Citizens: Armed Individual in Central Rome,” which is not exactly the kind of thing one likes to see in their inbox.

So nervous are the citizens that many are calling on the Vatican to cancel the Jubilee entirely. After all, the Vatican has been in the terrorists’ sights for quite some time. As The Daily Beast reported in October 2014, the ISIS propaganda magazine Dabiq put a picture of the black jihadi flag flying over St. Peter’s Square on its cover under the headline “The Failed Crusade.” “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 the Dabiq article accompanying the cover photos. “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.”

Making matters even more delicate, last week Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin said the Holy See supports military action against ISIS. “The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm,” Parolin said, quoting an old church teaching, and calling to mind the Crusades for some. “For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.”

For Francis, who long ago sold off the papal armored cars (and who refuses to wear a bulletproof vest because, as his spokesman said recently, what’s the point when he rides in an open-top vehicle), the show must go on. “Please, no security doors on the church,” he said at his general audience Wednesday, which had noticeably fewer faithful in the square and noticeably tighter security. “The church must be open.”

Other Vatican officials have said that a Jubilee is just what the world needs right now to give people hope. “Canceling the Jubilee would be totally mistaken,” said Italian Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco. “There absolutely must not be panic among the people, who must regard Rome, the pilgrimage to the Holy Door, with the usual serenity.”

Good luck with that.

In the meantime, the pontiff is planning to visit Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic on an increasingly risky five-day trip that starts Nov. 25. After that, he returns to Rome to kick off the Jubilee, which, quite hopefully, goes off without a bang.