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Attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II

Coordinates: 41°54′09.5″N 12°27′24″E / 41.902639°N 12.45667°E / 41.902639; 12.45667
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Pope John Paul II assassination attempt
The Pope photographed moments after being shot by Ali Ağca in St. Peter's Square on 13 May 1981
LocationSt. Peter's Square, Vatican City
Date13 May 1981; 43 years ago (1981-05-13)
TargetPope John Paul II
Attack type
WeaponsBrowning Hi-Power
Injured3 (including the Pope)
PerpetratorMehmet Ali Ağca (Grey Wolves)
The location of the shooting, marked by a stone tablet, in St. Peter's Square

On 13 May 1981, in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City, Pope John Paul II was shot and wounded by Mehmet Ali Ağca while he was entering the square. The Pope was struck twice and suffered severe blood loss. Ağca was apprehended immediately and later sentenced to life in prison by an Italian court. The Pope forgave Ağca for the assassination attempt.[1] He was pardoned by Italian president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi at the Pope's request and was deported to Turkey in June 2000. Ağca converted to Roman Catholicism in 2007.

Attempted assassination[edit]

The site of the shooting is marked by a small marble tablet bearing John Paul II's personal coat of arms and the date in Roman numerals.
The Fiat Popemobile in which Pope John Paul II was riding at the time of the attempted assassination. This vehicle is now in the Vatican Museums.

In 1979, The New York Times reported that Ağca, whom it called "the self-confessed killer of an Istanbul newspaperman" (Abdi İpekçi, editor of the Turkish newspaper Milliyet), had described the Pope as "the masked leader of the crusades" and threatened to shoot him if he did not cancel his planned visit to Turkey,[2] which went ahead in late November 1979.[3] The paper also said (on 28 November 1979) that the killing would be in revenge for the then still ongoing attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which had begun on 20 November, and which he blamed on the United States or Israel.[4]

Beginning in August 1980, Ağca, under the alias of Vilperi, began criss-crossing the Mediterranean region, changing passports and identities, perhaps to hide his point of origin in Sofia, Bulgaria. He entered Rome on 10 May 1981, coming by train from Milan. According to Ağca's later testimony, he met with three accomplices in Rome, one a fellow Turk and two Bulgarians, with the operation being commanded by Zilo Vassilev, the Bulgarian military attaché in Italy. He said that he was assigned this mission by Turkish mafioso Bekir Çelenk in Bulgaria.[5] According to Ağca, the plan was for him and the back-up gunman Oral Çelik to open fire on the pope in St. Peter's Square and escape to the Bulgarian embassy under the cover of the panic generated by a small explosion.

On 13 May, Ağca sat in the square, writing postcards and waiting for the Pope to arrive. When the Pope passed through a crowd of supporters, Ağca fired four shots at 17:17[6] with a 9mm Browning Hi-Power semi-automatic pistol, and critically wounded him. He fled the scene as the crowd was in shock and disposed of the pistol by throwing it under a truck, but was grabbed by Vatican security chief Camillo Cibin,[7] a nun, and several spectators who prevented him from firing more shots or escaping, and he was arrested. Two bullets hit John Paul II; one of them in his torso, narrowly missing vital organs, and a second hit his left index finger.[contradictory] Two bystanders were also injured: Ann Odre, of Buffalo, New York, was struck in the chest, and Rose Hall, of Frankfurt, West Germany, was slightly wounded in the arm.[8][9][10] The Pope was immediately rushed to the hospital while the authorities combed the site for evidence. Çelik panicked and fled without opening fire.

Incarceration of Ağca[edit]

Ağca was sentenced in July 1981 to life imprisonment for the assassination attempt, but was pardoned by Italian president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi in June 2000 at the Pope's request. He was then extradited to Turkey, where he was imprisoned for the 1979 murder of left-wing journalist Abdi İpekçi and two bank raids carried out in the 1970s. Despite a plea for early release in November 2004, a Turkish court announced that he would not be eligible for release until 2010. Nonetheless, he was released on parole on 12 January 2006.[11] However, on 20 January 2006, the Turkish Supreme Court ruled that his time served in Italy could not be deducted from his Turkish sentence and he was returned to jail.[12] Ağca was released from prison on 18 January 2010, after almost 29 years behind bars.[13]

Relationship with Pope John Paul II[edit]

Following the shooting, Pope John Paul II asked people to "pray for my brother [Ağca] ... whom I have sincerely forgiven."[14] In 1983, he and Ağca met and spoke privately at Rome's Rebibbia Prison, where Ağca was being held. Ağca reportedly kissed the Pope's ring at the conclusion of their visit; some mistakenly thought the Pope was hearing Ağca's confession. The Pope was also in touch with Ağca's family over the years, meeting his mother in 1987 and his brother, Muezzin Ağca, a decade later.

Although Ağca was quoted as saying that "to me [the Pope] was the incarnation of all that is capitalism", and attempted to murder him, Ağca developed a friendship with the pontiff. In early February 2005, during the Pope's illness, Ağca sent a letter to the Pope wishing him well.[15]

Motivations for the assassination attempt[edit]

Several theories exist concerning Ağca's assassination attempt. One, which was initially propagated in the American media and strongly advocated since the early 1980s by Michael Ledeen and Claire Sterling among others, was that the assassination attempt had originated from Moscow and that the KGB had instructed the Bulgarian and East German secret services to carry out the mission.[16] The Bulgarian Secret Service was allegedly instructed by the KGB to assassinate the Pope because of his support of Poland's Solidarity movement, seeing it as one of the most significant threats to Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe.[citation needed] Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman instead term this as the spread of "disinformation as news" in their book Manufacturing Consent (1988), as they say there was no evidence to support this claim, while Wolfgang Achtner of The Independent dubbed it "one of the most successful cases—certainly the most publicized—of disinformation."[17]

Ağca himself has given multiple conflicting statements on the assassination at different times. Attorney Antonio Marini stated: "Ağca has manipulated all of us, telling hundreds of lies, continually changing versions, forcing us to open tens of different investigations."[18] Originally, Ağca claimed to be a member of the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), but they denied any ties to him.[19]

"Bulgarian Connection"[edit]

Following the assassination attempt, Ağca made claims while in custody that prior to the attempt he had made several trips to Sofia, Bulgaria, where he claimed to have had contacts with a Bulgarian agent in Rome whose cover was the Bulgarian national airline office. Soon after the shooting, Sergei Antonov, a Bulgarian working in Rome for Balkan Air, was arrested based on Ağca's testimony and accused of being the Bulgarian agent who masterminded the plot.[20] In 1986, after a three-year trial, he was found not guilty.[21]

According to the CIA's chief of staff in Turkey, Paul Henze, Ağca later stated that in Sofia, he was once approached by the Bulgarian Secret Service and Turkish mafiosi, who offered him three million German marks to assassinate the Pope.[22] Some writers, including Edward S. Herman, co-author with Frank Brodhead of The Rise and Fall of the Bulgarian Connection (1986), and Michael Parenti, believed Ağca's story was dubious as Ağca made no claims of Bulgarian involvement until he had been isolated in solitary confinement and visited by Italian Military Intelligence (SISMI) agents. On 25 September 1991, former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman (now Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy) claimed that his colleagues, following orders, had falsified their analysis to support the accusation. He declared to the US Senate intelligence committee that "the CIA hadn't any proof" concerning this alleged "Bulgarian connection".[23][24]

Neither the Severino Santiapichi court nor the investigation by judge Franco Ionta found evidence that SISMI planted Ağca's story. A French lawyer, Christian Roulette, who authored books blaming Western intelligence agencies for the assassination attempt, testified in court that the documentary evidence he referred to actually did not exist.[25][26][27][28]

Grey Wolves[edit]

Le Monde diplomatique alleged that Abdullah Çatlı, a leader of the Grey Wolves, had organised the assassination attempt "in exchange for the sum of 3 million German Marks" for the Grey Wolves.[29] In Rome, Çatlı declared to the judge in 1985 "that he had been contacted by the BND, the German intelligence agency, which would have promised him a nice sum of money if he implicated the Russian and Bulgarian services in the assassination attempt against the Pope". According to colonel Alparslan Türkeş, the founder of the Grey Wolves, "Çatlı has cooperated in the frame of a secret service working for the good of the state".[23][24]

Mitrokhin Commission's claims[edit]

According to Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, documents recovered from former East German intelligence services confirm the 1981 assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II was ordered by the Soviet KGB and assigned to Bulgarian and East German agents with the Stasi to co-ordinate the operation and cover up the traces afterwards.[citation needed] Markus Wolf, former Stasi spy-master, denied any links, and stated that the files had already been sent in 1995.[30]

In March 2006, pending the 2006 Italian general election held in April, the controversial Mitrokhin Commission, set up by Silvio Berlusconi and headed by Forza Italia senator Paolo Guzzanti, supported once again the Bulgarian theory, which had been denounced by John Paul II during his travel to Bulgaria. Guzzanti stated that "leaders of the former Soviet Union were behind the assassination attempt", alleging that "the leadership of the Soviet Union took the initiative to eliminate Pope John Paul" because of his support for Solidarity, relaying "this decision to the military secret services" and not the KGB.[31] The report's claims were based on recent computer analysis of photographs that purported to demonstrate Antonov's presence in St Peter's Square during the shooting and on information brought by the French anti-terrorist judge Jean-Louis Bruguière, a controversial figure whose last feat was to indict Rwandese president Paul Kagame, on the grounds that he had deliberately provoked the 1994 Rwandan genocide against his own ethnic group in order to take power.[32] According to Le Figaro, Bruguière, who was in close contacts with both Moscow and Washington, D.C., including intelligence agents, was accused by many of his colleagues of "privileging the reason of state over law".[33]

Both Russia and Bulgaria condemned the report. Foreign ministry spokesman Dimiter Tzantchev said: "For Bulgaria, this case closed with the court decision in Rome in March 1986." , He recalled the Pope's dismissive comments during his May 2002 visit to Bulgaria.[34] Guzzanti said that the commission had decided to re-open the report's chapter on the assassination attempt in 2005, after the Pope wrote about it in his last book, Memory and Identity: Conversations Between Millenniums. The Pope wrote that he was convinced the shooting was not Ağca's initiative and that "someone else masterminded it and someone else commissioned it". The Mitrokhin Commission also alleged Romano Prodi, a former Prime Minister of Italy, was the "KGB's man in Italy".[35]

At the end of December 2006, Mario Scaramella, one of the main informers of Guzzanti, was arrested and charged, among other things, of defamation. Cited by La Repubblica, Rome's prosecutor Pietro Salvitti, who was in charge of the investigations concerning Scaramella, showed that Nicolò Pollari, head of SISMI, the Italian military intelligence agency and indicted in the Abu Omar case, as well as SISMI no 2, Marco Mancini, who arrested in July 2006 for the same reason, were some of the informers, alongside Scaramella, of Guzzanti. According to Salvitti, beside targeting Prodi and his staff, this network also aimed at defaming General Giuseppe Cucchi (the then director of the CESIS), Milan's judges Armando Spataro, in charge of the Abu Omar case, and Guido Salvini, as well as La Repubblica reporters Carlo Bonini and Giuseppe D'Avanzo, who discovered the Yellowcake forgery affair.[36] The investigation also showed a connection between Scaramella and the CIA, in particular through Filippo Marino, one of Scaramella's closest partners since the 1990s and co-founder of the Environmental Crime Prevention Program, who came to live in the United States. In an interview, Marino acknowledged an association with former and active CIA officers, including Robert Lady, former CIA station chief in Milan, indicted by prosecutor Armando Spataro for having coordinated the abduction of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr that led to the Abu Omar case.[37]

Spies in the Vatican[edit]

In 2009, journalist and former U.S. Army military intelligence officer John O. Koehler published Spies in the Vatican: The Soviet Union's Cold War Against the Catholic Church.[38] Mining mostly East German and Polish secret police archives, Koehler claims the attempt was "KGB-backed" and gives details.[39]

Fatima and possible Vatican connection[edit]

One of the bullets that struck Pope John Paul II in 1981 was later encased in the crown of the image of Our Lady of Fatima, in the Sanctuary of Fátima, Portugal.

The date of the attempted assassination, 13 May 1981, was the 64th anniversary of the first apparition of the Virgin Mary to the children at Fátima (13 May 1917). On 13 May 2000, Cardinal Angelo Sodano gave a public address[40] in which he linked the then-as-yet-unreleased Third Secret of Fátima to the assassination attempt: while describing the Secret as a "prophetic vision" which does "not describe with photographic clarity the details of future events," he also identified the prophecy's "Bishop clothed in white" as the Pope, and repeated John Paul II's impression that "a motherly hand" had deflected Ağca's bullets. The Vatican revealed the text of the Third Secret itself the same year, on 26 June 2000.

While in prison on remand, Ağca was widely reported to have developed an obsession with Fátima. During the trial Ağca claimed that he was the second coming of Jesus Christ, and called on the Vatican to release the Third Secret. (His assassination attempt had also come only 11 days after the hijacking of Aer Lingus Flight 164 by Laurence James Downey, an ex-monk, who demanded the release of the Third Secret.)

On 31 March 2005, just two days prior to the Pope's death, Ağca gave an interview to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.[41] He claimed to be working on a book about the assassination attempt. La Repubblica quoted Ağca claiming at length that he had accomplices in the Vatican who helped him with the assassination attempt, saying "the devil is inside Vatican's wall". He also said:

Many calculating politicians are worried about what revealing the complete truth would do. Some of them fear that the Vatican will have a spiritual collapse like the Berlin Wall. Let me ask, why don't the CIA, the SISMI, the SISDE, and other intelligence agencies reveal the truth about the Orlandi case?

Q: They say it's because there is still some uncertainty in the Emanuela Orlandi case.

Ağca: In the 1980s, certain Vatican supporters believed that I was the new messiah and to free me they organised all the intrigue about Emanuela Orlandi and the other incidents they won't reveal.

Emanuela Orlandi, the daughter of a Vatican employee, disappeared at age 15 on 22 June 1983. Anonymous phone calls offered her release in exchange for the release of Ağca. Archbishop Paul Marcinkus was alleged to be part of the kidnapping, although no charges were ever laid.

Ağca subsequently denied having made such claims following the publication of the interview.[42] In 2010 Ağca asserted that Cardinal Agostino Casaroli had been behind the assassination attempt.[citation needed] However, when Ağca published his memoirs in 2013, his story changed completely,[43] writing that the Iranian government and supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the assassination attempt on John Paul II.

In fiction[edit]

The A. J. Quinnell novel In the Name of the Father describes the aftermath of the plot to assassinate the Pope. Church leaders are shocked to discover that the attempt was orchestrated by the highest levels of the Kremlin.[44]

On the online timeline of the 2004 alternate history mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, in which the Confederate States of America wins the American Civil War and annexes the rest of the United States, an assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II still occurs. However, it occurs in New York City rather than in St. Peter's Square. The assailant, a Baptist from Tennessee named Maynard Brimley, shoots the Pope and kills a bystander. Although the Pope visits Brimley in prison to forgive him for his actions, Brimley is tried and executed, partly to appease international pressure.[45]

The Tom Clancy novel Red Rabbit incorporates the assassination attempt, following the "Moscow origin" theory.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Man who shot pope mourning his death, lawyer says". NBC News. 4 April 2005. Retrieved 20 January 2013.
  2. ^ A. Humeyra Atilgan (26 November 2014). "John Paul II's visit sparked little interest in Turkey". Anadolu Agency. Retrieved 23 February 2021. ... AA remembers John Paul II's 1979 visit ... reported by the New York Times."One cause of concern was a threat to the pope by the self-confessed killer of an Istanbul newspaperman," the paper said. "Ali Agca called the pontiff 'the masked leader of the crusades' and warned that if the visit were not canceled he would shoot the Roman Catholic leader." Mehmet Ali Agca would indeed fire four bullets into John Paul II on May 13, 1981
  3. ^ "Apostolic Journey to Turkey 1979". Vatican Library. Retrieved 23 February 2021.
  4. ^ Marvine Howe (28 November 1979). "POPE'S TURKISH VISIT GETS EXTRA SECURITY". New York Times. Retrieved 23 February 2021. ANKARA, Turkey, Nov. 27 — ... Threat to Kill Pope
    One cause of concern was a threat to kill the Pope by the self‐confessed killer of an Istanbul newspaperman who escaped from a military prison Sunday. In a signed letter to the independent daily Milliyet, the paper whose editor was killed in February, the fugitive, Ali Agca, called the Pontiff "the masked leader of the Crusades," and warned that if the visit were not canceled he would shoot the Roman Catholic leader in "revenge" for the recent attack on the Grand Mosque in the Islamic holy city of Mecca, an attack that he alleged was of American or Israeli origin.
  5. ^ Lee, Martin A. (3 March 1997). "Les liaisons dangereuses de la police turque". Le Monde diplomatique (in French).
  6. ^ "1981 Year in Review: Pope John Paul II Assasination [sic] Attempt". United Press International (UPI)). 1981.
  7. ^ "Security Chief for the Vatican Was 'Guardian Angel' to Pope". The Wall Street Journal. 6 November 2009. Retrieved 6 November 2009.
  8. ^ "2 Americans Weep at Pope's Mention". Sarasota Herald-Tribune. 18 May 1981.
  9. ^ "A Hospital Message from the Pope Offers Comfort to Fellow Sufferers". The New York Times. 25 May 1981.
  10. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Zero Hour - S02E06 - The Plot To Kill The Pope Trailer". YouTube.
  11. ^ Newton, Paula (12 January 2006). "Man who shot pope freed". CNN. Associated Press. Archived from the original on 14 January 2006. Retrieved 26 October 2008.
  12. ^ Goktas, Hidir (20 January 2006). "Man who shot pope must return to jail: Turkish court". Reuters. Archived from the original on 10 July 2006. Retrieved 26 October 2008.
  13. ^ "Man who shot pope released from prison". CNN. 18 January 2010. Retrieved 18 January 2010.
  14. ^ "Holy See defers to courts on possible release of would-be Papal assassin". Catholic News Agency. Vatican City. 9 January 2006.
  15. ^ O'Connor, Rachael. "On this day in 1981, Pope John Paul II was shot four times while greeting crowds in the Vatican". The Irish Post. Archived from the original on 18 May 2020. Retrieved 1 May 2022.
  16. ^ Kostin, S., & Raynaud, É. (2011). Farewell. Amazonencore.
  17. ^ Chomsky, Noam; Herman, Edward S. (2 February 2002). Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Pantheon Books. pp. 143-168. ISBN 9780375714498.
  18. ^ 'Ali Agça revient à la liberté avec ses secrets' Archived 22 February 2008 at the Wayback Machine, 12 January 2006, Libération(in French)]
  19. ^ "Scrap Book - Doco - Documentation - Media Snippets: CIA involved in POPE ASSASSINATION".
  20. ^ "Bulgarian Denies Role In Attempt to Kill Pope". The New York Times. Vol. 135, no. 46551. 3 October 1985. Archived from the original on 24 November 2017.
  21. ^ "Rome Court Clears Way for Bulgarian to Leave". The New York Times. Vol. 135, no. 46732. 2 April 1986. Archived from the original on 24 May 2015.
  22. ^ Paul B. Henze. The Plot to Kill the Pope, Holiday House, 1985.[page needed]
  23. ^ a b "The Consortium". consortiumnews.com.
  24. ^ a b Martin A. Lee, "Les liaisons dangereuses de la police turque", in Le Monde diplomatique, March 1997 (in French)
  25. ^ "Italian Judge Said to Drop Probe of Agca Being Coached". The Washington Post. 22 December 1985. Archived from the original on 17 October 2012. Retrieved 7 July 2017.
  26. ^ Crovitz, Gordon (8 January 1986). "Pope Trial: What Secret Files?". The Wall Street Journal.
  27. ^ Tagliabue, John (15 January 1986). "Court in Pope plot won't extend trial to hear testimony in U.S." The New York Times.
  28. ^ Christian Roulette (1984). Giovanni Paolo II, Antonov, Agca. La pista. Rome: Edito da Napoleone.[page needed]
  29. ^ Nezan, Kendal (July 1998). "Turkey's pivotal role in the international drug trade". Le Monde diplomatique.
  30. ^ "Stasi Files Implicate KGB in Pope Shooting", Deutsche Welle, 4 January 2005.
  31. ^ "Soviets 'had Pope shot for backing Solidarity'". The Daily Telegraph. 3 March 2006. Archived from the original on 11 March 2007. Retrieved 5 November 2021.
  32. ^ Rwanda : Bruguière incrimine Paul Kagamé, Le Figaro, 21 November 2006 (in French)
  33. ^ "Un juge provocateur", Le Figaro, 22 November 2006, p.2
  34. ^ "Soviet Union ordered Pope shooting: Italy commission". Reuters. 2 March 2006. Archived from the original on 10 July 2006. Retrieved 22 May 2007.
  35. ^ "Prodi slams TV over spy claim". Reuters. 23 January 2007. Retrieved 20 July 2023.
  36. ^ Il falso dossier di Scaramella – "Così la Russia manipola Prodi", La Repubblica, 11 January 2007 (in Italian)
  37. ^ "How one man insinuated himself into poisoning case Archived 10 January 2007 at the Wayback Machine", International Herald Tribune, 9 January 2007.
  38. ^ John Koehler, Spies in the Vatican, Pegasus, 2009. ISBN 978-1-60598-050-8
  39. ^ Publishers Weekly, review of 'Spies in the Vatican', 11 May 2009
  40. ^ Angelo Sodano (13 May 2000). "Address of Cardinal Angelo Sodano regarding the "third part" of the Secret of Fatima". Retrieved 23 September 2023.
  41. ^ "L'ultima verità di Ali Agca 'Avevo dei complici in Vaticano'". La Repubblica (in Italian). 31 March 2005. Archived from the original on 12 March 2007.)
  42. ^ "Agca Denies Accusing Vatican of Complicity in Pope Shooting". Turkish Weekly. Associated Press. 4 April 2005. Archived from the original on 29 September 2007. Retrieved 22 May 2007.
  43. ^ The original edition of the book is in Italian ("Mi avevano promesso il paradiso: La mia vita e la verità sull'attentato al papa", i.e. "They promised me the paradise: My life and the truth about the assassination attempt on the pope"). The Italian edition is available in electronic version for the Nook: Agca, Ali. Mi avevano promesso il paradiso: La mia vita e la verità sull'attentato al papa. Publisher GeMS (31 January 2013), ISBN 978-88-6190-438-5 There is also a French translation under the name "Je devais tuer le pape" ("I had to kill the pope"), version for Kindle: Agca, Ali (Author), Rouillard, Philippe (Translator). Je devais tuer le pape. Publisher: Archipel (13 March 2013)
  44. ^ Quinnell, A. J. (1 September 1987). In the name of the father. New American Library. ISBN 9780453005715 – via Google Books.
  45. ^ "C.S.A. The Movie Website". Archived from the original on 15 January 2007.

Further viewing[edit]

External links[edit]

41°54′09.5″N 12°27′24″E / 41.902639°N 12.45667°E / 41.902639; 12.45667