Vatican to review security after papal knock-down
Associate Press Writer
VATICAN CITY (AP) – The Vatican will review security procedures after a woman jumped a barrier and rushed at Pope Benedict XVI for the second time in two years, this time managing to knock him down before being pulled away by guards, the Vatican spokesman said.
Benedict, 82, wasn’t hurt and delivered his traditional Christmas Day greetings in 65 languages from the loggia overlooking St. Peter’s Square. While a bit unsteady at first, he also delivered a short speech about the world’s trouble spots without problem.
The incident in St. Peter’s Basilica raised fresh questions about security for the pontiff, however, after officials said the woman involved had jumped the barrier at the 2008 Midnight Mass in a failed bid to get to the pope. She even wore the same red-hooded sweat shirt.
Meanwhile, thousands of pilgrims from around the world descended on the traditional birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem for the most upbeat Christmas celebrations the Palestinian town has seen in years.
Hundreds of worshippers packed St. Catherine’s Church on Manger Square for morning Mass. Most were local Palestinian Christians, and the Mass was celebrated in Arabic.
Some 47,000 Filipinos who fled their homes in anticipation of the eruption of the Mayon volcano shared rations of noodles, fried fish and fruit to celebrate Christmas in evacuation centers. Children opened donated presents and clowns entertained the crowds, as the government tried to keep the evacuees from slipping back to their homes.
In officially atheist China, Christmas is a kind of Valentine’s Day for many – a chance to shop and socialize. But members of the country’s state-registered churches also gathered for holiday services on one of Beijing’s coldest nights in a decade.
More than 1,000 people attended Christmas Eve Mass at one church in western Beijing, while another 1,000 or so stood outside. Christmas morning was 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
“This is a traditional Western festival, and I learned through the Internet and other sources that people in the West come to church to pray for God to bless their families,” said Wang Dongyan, one of those attending the Xuanwu Catholic church. “I came here to pray for greater progress in my career and life in the coming year.”
In Britain, Queen Elizabeth II paid tribute to the country’s troops fighting in Afghanistan in her annual Christmas speech broadcast Friday, praising their work while expressing her sadness at the casualties. The queen’s message came at the end of a year in which 106 British soldiers were killed in the troubled Central Asian country. 2009 has been the bloodiest year for the British military since the war started nine years ago.
“I am sure that we have all been affected by events in Afghanistan and saddened by the casualties suffered by our forces serving there,” the queen said in an address prerecorded in Buckingham Palace’s White Drawing Room.
In Rome, Italian officials also remarked on the odd similarity of the breach at the Vatican to an assault two weeks ago on Premier Silvio Berlusconi by a man with a history of psychological problems. The attack in Milan broke the premier’s nose and two teeth.
The Vatican identified the woman involved in Thursday night’s incident as Susanna Maiolo, 25, a Swiss-Italian national with psychiatric problems who was immediately taken to a clinic for treatment. Interior Ministry officials said she lived in Switzerland and the ANSA news agency said she had traveled to Rome specifically for the Mass as she did last year.
In the 2008 case, Maiolo never managed to reach the pope and was quietly tackled by security. During Thursday night’s service, she launched herself over the barricade as Benedict walked down the aisle at the start of Christmas Eve service. As security guards wrestled her to the ground, she grabbed onto Benedict’s vestments, bringing him down with her.
Virtually anyone can get into a papal Mass: tickets are required but are easy to get if requested in advance. Identification cards are not necessary to gain entrance, although visitors must pass through a metal detector.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi said it’s not realistic to think the Vatican can ensure 100 percent security for the pope considering he is regularly surrounded by tens of thousands of people for his weekly audiences, Masses, papal greetings and other events.
“It seems that they intervened at the earliest possible moment in a situation in which ‘zero risk’ cannot be achieved,” he said Friday.
The Vatican’s security officials will nonetheless review the episode and “try to learn from experience,” Lombardi told The Associated Press.
It was the first time a potential attacker has come into direct contact with Benedict during his nearly five-year papacy. Security analysts have frequently warned the pope is too exposed in his public appearances, but Lombardi noted that they are a necessary part of the job.
“People want to see him up close, and he’s pleased to see them closely too,” Lombardi said. “A zero risk doesn’t seem realistic in a situation in which there’s a direct rapport with the people.”
While Benedict was unhurt in the fall, a retired Vatican diplomat, French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, 87, fell and fractured his hip in the commotion. He will be operated on in the coming days at Rome’s Gemelli hospital, said Nicola Cerbino, a hospital spokesman.
Etchegaray, emeritus archbishop of Marseille who headed the Vatican’s justice and peace and charity offices before retiring, was seen leaving the basilica in a wheelchair after the fall. Despite the fracture, his condition was “good,” Lombardi said.
The cardinal received several high-ranking visitors Friday at his hospital bedside, including Benedict’s personal secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, and the retired Vatican No. 2, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who reported Etchegaray was “serene as always and hopes after this little operation to return home soon to continue his work,” ANSA quoted Sodano as saying.
Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno remarked on the “strange” coincidence in the recent security breaches, saying “We need in some way to be more vigilant over all, because in an open and globalized world, the number of unbalanced people and their aggressiveness can increase.”
Nevertheless, since the incident occurred on Vatican territory, it is up to Vatican judicial authorities to decide whether and how to proceed with any possible charges against Maiolo. Lombardi said he didn’t know how the matter would be handled but noted that the Vatican justice system is usually “very benevolent.”
There have been other security breaches at the Vatican.
In 2007, during an open-air audience in St. Peter’s Square, a mentally unstable German man jumped a security barrier and grabbed the back of the pope’s open car before being swarmed by security guards.
AP writers Mark Lavie and Dalia Nammari in Bethlehem, Cara Anna in Beijing and Bullit Marquez in Legazpi, Philippines, contributed to this report.