A local newspaper has reported that intelligence agents have been sent by the CIA to assess the security situation for the Manila visit of Pope Francis who is arriving at Villamor Air Base at 5:45 this afternoon. According to sources, other international intel organizations have been sharing information to identify security concerns and assess the threat level, among them Israel’s Mossad that reportedly issued a warning about possible attacks to the Vatican by the terrorist group ISIS/ISIL.
Additional reports also identified the Pope as a specific target by Islamic terrorists following the pontiff’s condemnation of the shootings in Paris that resulted in the killing of journalists working for the weekly satire Charlie Hebdo. Much earlier, local papers also carried news reports that ISIS operatives have been recruiting in Mindanao, and that a hundred young Filipinos have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS. And let’s not forget, no less than an Iraqi official had raised the possibility of an ISIS threat following the Pope’s strong condemnation of the terrorist group last year.
The Vatican has denied receiving such reports or warnings from Mossad, CIA and other organizations, but we wouldn’t be surprised at the existence of such warnings considering the heightened alert across France and Italy in the aftermath of the Paris shootings. The Philippine government, however, has admitted that local authorities have been coordinating with the Interpol and Asean to identify individuals who have joined the ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
In one of our previous columns, we pointed out that security for the Pope should be as extensive as that accorded to US presidents – if not more so considering the millions who will flock to Luneta to hear the special mass and to get a glimpse of the pope. Vatican security has acknowledged that securing this particular Pope could be a nightmare because he is known for being unpredictable, dispensing with protocol and making sudden changes from the pre-set schedule of activities including “rerouting” the official vehicle to interact with the crowds.
The 20,000 police personnel of the PNP are augmented by 17,000 from the AFP including two battalions of UN peacekeepers. The papal visit to the Philippines is a major event whose impact is immeasurable, and certainly, the security of Pope Francis is a matter of concern for everyone, most especially the millions of Catholic faithful who look upon him as their spiritual father.
A look back on papal visits
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Despite denials by local authorities about the existence of specific threats against Pope Francis, security has been doubled with the President making an appeal for Filipinos to strictly follow the advisories such as the “no payong” policy and others to make it easier to manage the crowd surge which could have potentially fatal consequences like what happened during the Feast of the Black Nazarene.
There is no such thing as “over preparation” when it comes to the security of the leader of the Catholic Church, considering the Philippines’ history of previous assassination attempts against visiting popes. Many still remember the 1970 visit of Pope Paul VI when crazed Bolivian artist Benjamin Mendoza tried to kill the Pope at the airport where a swell of people rushed to greet him. Not many know that Pope Paul VI sustained two stab wounds on the neck from the attack – on the right and left side of the jugular vein – and the injury would have been more serious were it not for the quick reflexes of Monsignor Pascuale Macci, the pope’s secretary, not to mention the thick garments of the pope.
In 1995, authorities uncovered an assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II by Ramzi Yousef a week before the pope’s visit to Manila. Yousef and cohorts were working on a bomb when their rented apartment in Malate suddenly caught fire. The suspicions of an inquisitive officer were aroused when she found out that Islamic foreigners were renting the apartment – and the discovery of chemical bomb components, a priest’s cassock and a laptop alerted the authorities about the planned assassination. No wonder some security people on the ground advised the cancellation of the mass, and the authorities decided to fly the pope directly from Malacañang by chopper to Luneta due to the huge crowd that gathered on the streets.
Pope’s ‘Vatican in the sky’
We spoke with Philippine Airlines president Jimmy Bautista and he confirmed that a new Airbus A-340 would flying Pope Francis on a special non-stop flight from Manila to Rome. The first row of the Business Class has section been reserved for the pope and Vatican officials, although no special cabin configuration has been made. Everyone certainly wants to be with the pope, which is why it was not surprising to know that a private lottery was held to determine the top personnel who would be assigned to the A-340, from the pilot down to the purser and flight attendants.
A new A-320 would be used for the pope’s flight to Tacloban where he would be accompanied by Jimmy and Secretary Jojo Ochoa who is representing the Office of the President. Jimmy will also personally accompany the pope during the long-haul flight to Rome – very apt considering that the PAL president is also known for being humble and simple like his VIP passenger.
Some 70 Vatican-accredited media personnel (VAMP) would also joing the flight to Rome. According to Jimmy, everything about the flight down to the food is elegant but “simple” as requested by the pope – who is known for shunning extravagance – to make sure that the PAL plane would really become the pope’s “Vatican in the sky.”
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