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VATICAN LETTER Sep-23-2005 (900 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxi

Seamless web: providing papal security with reasonable public access

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The hundreds of people who guard the pope and the Vatican have created a seamless web of tight security with reasonable public access for the millions of pilgrims who flock yearly to Vatican City.

Following the tradition of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI takes a long ride, weaving in and around thousands of people in an open-air jeep every time his weekly general audience is held in St. Peter's Square.

While the jeep is flanked by a picket of stern-faced plainclothesmen, the pope passes just an arm's length from jubilant crowds straining against waist-high wooden security fences.

Every now and then, a child is hoisted up for a blessing, or a gift meant for the pope is lobbed in his general direction.

Vatican and Italian security forces provide "impeccable security for a person who wants to be open and near the people," one Italian state police official told Catholic News Service.

Though security measures were increased during the 2000 Holy Year celebrations, some features remained after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

For example, the airport-style metal detectors have become a permanent fixture, and visitors are required to pass through them on their way to an event with the pope in St. Peter's Square or to visit St. Peter's Basilica.

Vatican security measures have long been tight, though not always in an obtrusive or obvious way, said the security officer, who asked not to be named.

"We were already prepared" for current international threats because "experience taught us many lessons," he said, referring in part to Italy's own era of terrorism in the 1970s, the so-called "years of lead."

He said high-level security procedures in the Vatican were in place "a good two years before 9/11."

Three separate entities keep watch over the pope and the Vatican.

The most visible, and colorful, are the 110 Swiss Guards, whose main duties are guarding the pope and his residence. The Swiss Guards can also be seen manning entry points into Vatican City and providing honor guard duty at papal ceremonies.

Though their security savoir-faire may look antiquated with their quaint medieval weaponry, the guards are all former Swiss army soldiers, trained in martial arts and skilled in modern firearm use. They also attend seminars conducted by the Swiss government's secret service.

When they accompany the pope on special security duty, the guards ditch the yellow, red and blue ceremonial uniforms for sleek business suits.

The Swiss Guards have pledged to guard the pope's life even at the risk of their own. It was an undercover Swiss Guard who helped shield Pope John Paul II during the assassination attempt against his life on May 13, 1981, in St. Peter's Square.

The Vatican's other security body is its own police force, the gendarme corps. It is responsible for crowd control, traffic within the Vatican, parking enforcement and permits to enter offices within the walls of Vatican City.

Though many of the officers wear police uniforms, they are not armed.

Today's gendarme corps is a simpler, pared-down version of the Vatican's earlier security forces.

Once upon a time, in addition to the Swiss Guards, popes had the noble guard, the Palatine guard and the papal gendarmes.

Pope Paul VI dissolved these three armed corps to create a "watch corps," known today as the gendarmes. He not only sought to simplify security, he wanted to replace showy, military might with "genuine evangelical simplicity."


The last major body keeping watch over popes and the territory that rings the Vatican is a special branch of the Italian police force.

The Inspectorate for Public Security at the Vatican was established in 1929 when the Vatican and the Italian government signed the Lateran Pacts formally recognizing the Vatican's independence.

Since the Vatican is surrounded by Italian territory, the agreement allowed Italian police to provide for the pope's security when he leaves Vatican City.

The Italian police guarantee and coordinate all armed escort for the pope, some top Vatican officials and important heads of state every time they leave or head to the Vatican.

The Italian police also provide security and law enforcement in St. Peter's Square and the entrance area of the Vatican Museums.

Tourists can see officers policing their beat in St. Peter's Square on blue-and-white electric Lamborghini Minis, which more closely resemble golf carts.

However, even a sharp eye may not see Italy's "invisible" security measures in place around and over the square. One police officer told reporters in January there "could be" sharpshooters high up on surrounding buildings or undercover agents milling in the crowds.

The Swiss Guards, the Vatican's gendarme corps and the Italian police somehow manage to coordinate all their mandates of providing security and public order without creating an oppressive atmosphere for tourists and pilgrims.

The real test came the week following Pope John Paul II's death, when more than 3 million pilgrims descended on Rome and 140 world leaders gathered outdoors for the April 8 funeral Mass. What could have been chaos was instead a safe and generally orderly event.

Detailed planning well ahead of a scheduled event and a practiced synergy among the agents are the secrets, the Italian state police official said.

"We already know what to do, so we carry out our tasks serenely, even for massive events," he said.

END


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This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed.
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