Which is the odd one out? Barcelona, Stockholm, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Brussels, Copenhagen, London. The answer to this grim question is Italy’s capital, which has so far escaped an Islamist terror attack of the kind seen in other major European cities.
This is striking, given that one of ISIS’s repeated themes is its hatred of “Rome” – which it sees not just as the symbolic heart of Christian civilisation, but as a future military target. Last week ISIS fighters in the Philippines released a sacrilegious video in which they declared: “Remember this, you kuffar [non-Muslims] – we will be in Rome, we will be in Rome, inshallah [God willing].”
The Swiss Guards, who have defended the popes since 1506, are aware that they have a new challenge. Last week their leader, Commander Christoph Graf, spoke to the Swiss Catholic website cath.ch about the truck attack in Barcelona. “Perhaps it is only a question of time before an attack like that happens in Rome,” he said. “But we are ready also for this.”
Given that the total number of Swiss Guards is a little more than 100 men – albeit the cream of young Swiss Catholics – it is reassuring to know that they are not left to guard the Vatican alone. The Holy See’s 130-strong police force – the Corps of Gendarmerie – share the responsibility for Vatican security. (Though not quite as venerable as the Swiss Guards, they celebrated their 200th birthday last year.) The head of the Corps, Domenico Giani, oversees Vatican security; the Corps’ rapid-response unit, the Gruppo Intervento Rapido, is on standby for emergencies.
It has been a while since such an emergency took place: the last major example was on May 13, 1981, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. The Turkish hitman Mehmet Ali Ağca fired at Pope St John Paul II, hitting him twice, then advanced with his knife. But in the words of John Paul’s secretary Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, Giani’s predecessor as head of the Corps, Camillo Cibin, “reacted so swiftly that the would-be assassin couldn’t finish what he had begun”.
John Paul believed that Our Lady of Fatima had redirected the bullet to save his life. The Vatican security operation, not wanting to rely on supernatural intervention, expanded its security operation in response.
But the nature of papal audiences is such that popes are frequently very close to large crowds of people. In 2006, a mentally ill woman managed to grab hold of Benedict XVI’s vestments and drag him to the floor, before Giani pulled her away. Giani said at the time that the number of people who “are stopped because they get too close to the Holy Father are many, even if we do not publicise it”.
The Swiss Guards and Corps of Gendarmerie have increased the defences again in recent years. In 2015, Rome police agreed to institute a ban on flying drones in the city. Just in the last week there were two investigations into drone-flying near the Vatican: one drone vanished when police took an interest, but the other was confiscated. (It belonged to a 37-year-old American tourist who found himself detained by Rome police.)
Then in response to the truck attack on Nice last year, which killed 86 people, St Peter’s Square received extra protection: barriers like those which have gone up on London bridges, and police and army vehicles.
As those examples show, the Vatican’s own security forces have to be constantly in touch with Italian police. Giani told La Stampa in 2005 that they cannot guess where the next attack might come from. “It is not just ISIS that represents a threat. There is also a risk of isolated actions which are more dangerous because they are unpredictable. I am thinking of fanatics, mentally disturbed individuals, mythomaniacs or simply individuals who may decide to do something in the Vatican to attract media attention.”
Pope Francis himself has generally taken the view that he would rather not be surrounded by security if it gets between him and his flock. And at his birthday address to the Corps of Gendarmerie, he congratulated them not for keeping him safe but for their work against corruption in the Vatican. “Your task is to avoid evil things being done, such as the exploiter and the crook do,” he said.
Vatican security has adapted to changed times. But given the scale of the new threat and the paucity of Vatican resources, it is worth saying the traditional prayer: “May the Lord preserve Pope Francis and give him life, and make him blessed upon earth, and deliver him not up to the will of his enemies.”