Striving for a balance of access, safety

Security

The Pope In America

April 15, 2008|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- From the moment Shepherd One touches down today at Andrews Air Force Base, Pope Benedict XVI will be afforded all the protection due a man who is both a head of state - Vatican City - and leader of the world's largest church.

Airspace will be restricted, waterways blockaded and streets shut down for the pontiff, who is making the first papal visit to the United States since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 - and his first trip anywhere since al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden accused him of leading a "new Crusade" against Muslims.

Officials are reluctant to discuss security plans, but they include multiple layers of protection: From the plainclothes Swiss Guards, who accompany the pope at all times; to the Secret Service, responsible for protecting foreign dignitaries in the United States; to the police departments of Washington and New York, long experienced in crowd control during high-level visits.

"Generally speaking, I can say we're working closely with the Vatican and the Archdiocese of Washington and the Archdiocese of New York and all of our state and federal partners," Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said.

When Pope John Paul II visited Washington in 1979, he stood up in the sunroof of his black sedan to greet the throngs en route to an open-air Mass on the National Mall. When Pope Benedict travels this week in Washington and New York, it will be in the enclosed, bulletproof Popemobile. Worshipers attending the Masses at Nationals Park and Yankee Stadium must show bar-coded tickets before they are allowed to pass through the metal detectors.

Concern for papal safety, already high after the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul, has increased since the angry response in the Muslim world to a 2006 address by Pope Benedict. Comments seen by some as critical of Islam set off demonstrations in several countries; an Italian nun in Somalia was shot to death, churches in the West Bank were firebombed and the pope was burned in effigy in Iraq.

Bin Laden appeared eager to stoke that anger in a taped message released last month. The al-Qaida leader said the pope had played a "large, lengthy role" in a "new Crusade" against Muslims, and he threatened a "severe" reckoning to come.

On the eve of the pontiff's visit, the Vatican's No. 2 official declared him "very tranquil and serene." Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, noted that Pope Benedict visited the predominantly Muslim nation of Turkey just two months after his address linking that religion to violence provoked riots in the Islamic world.

"We have faith in the means of protection the government will implement," Bertone told the Associated Press. "He entrusts himself to God and also to his guardian angels who won't be lacking on this trip to the United States."

Robert Royal, the Catholic academic and commentator who wrote The Pope's Army: 500 Years of the Papal Swiss Guard, has counted roughly 150 plots against the pope in the past 25 years.

"There are people who for various reasons don't like him and would like to kidnap and abuse him," he said. "Other than the president of the United States, he's probably the biggest fish you can get if you've got some kind of grievance."

The 1981 attack on Pope John Paul in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City - he was shot three times - led to an overhaul in papal protection. Out went the golf carts and open cars in which the pope once traveled; in came the Popemobile, a custom-built Mercedes-Benz that has been flown into the United States for his visit.

The Swiss Guards, who serve as the pope's personal bodyguards, carry concealed weapons and train in the martial arts. Some are stationed among the throngs; others might watch from elevated vantage points.

"It's a little bit more serious than just kind of holding back the crowd, which is what they used to do before that assassination attempt," Royal said.

The Secret Service, meanwhile, has been inspecting venues where Pope Benedict is to speak. At the Catholic University of America, for example, where the pope is to address educators Thursday, agents have directed the university to repave roads to improve entry and exit and to block windows overlooking spaces where he is to appear.

Thursday will be a challenging day for security officials in Washington: While the pope celebrates Mass at Nationals Park, makes his appearance at Catholic and hosts an interfaith gathering at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, President Bush will be receiving British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the White House.

Donovan, the Secret Service spokesman, said the pope's "stature and visibility" make the assignment "a little bit different" from protecting a typical dignitary.

"And the fact that he doesn't visit the United States very often, that makes it different," he said. "The number of people who want to come out and see him, that also makes it different."

Royal called the security of a modern pope "a virtually impossible task."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.