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Pope Francis is about to visit a country with a long history of papal assassination attempts

AP Photo/Aaron Favila
A cut-out picture of a standee of Pope Francis is surrounded by Filipino army reservist and volunteers during a briefing as part of security preparations for his visit.
By Adam Pasick
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Pope Francis’s visit to the Philippines this week is going to be a tense one for his Swiss Guard security detail: ISIL allegedly issued a threat to kill the pontiff last year, around the same time that the Filipino Islamic guerrilla group Abu Sayyaf pledged its allegiance to the Islamic extremist group’s cause.

What’s more, the country has an unhappy history of assassination attempts on popes. John Paul II was the target of two plots organized by al-Qaeda operations chief Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in the Philippines in 1995 and 1999. A few decades earlier, Paul VI was stabbed on the Manila airport runway by a Bolivian painter in 1970, but escaped with minor injuries.

Gregorio Catapang, the head of the Philippines’ military, described an attempt on the pope’s life as “the biggest security nightmare” of the government. Francis is expected to make a major speech on climate change during his visit to the world’s largest Catholic country after Brazil and Mexico, which has borne the brunt of exceptionally severe storms in the last few years.

Six million people are expected to attend outdoor mass this Sunday in Manila. As Quartz has reported, some traffic police have been told to wear diapers because of a shortage of portable toilets. In a religious procession on Friday that authorities were treating as a dry run for the mass, one man was trampled to death.

The potential ISIL threat to Francis was first raised by Iraq’s minister to the Vatican in October, in response to the pope’s comments that the group must “be stopped.” In his Christmas speech, Francis condemned ISIL’s “brutal persecution” of religious minorities. The Vatican has downplayed the rumors of any ISIL plot and said no additional security measures would be taken.

Abu Sayyaf has been conducting a long-running Islamist insurgency in the southern Philippines, and is well-known for kidnapping and ransoming Western hostages. In October, the group threatened to behead an elderly German couple unless it received $5.6 million and the German government withdrew support for the US-led bombing of ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria. An Australian man was arrested in July for recruiting for ISIL among Filipino Muslims. The Philippine government, however, has claimed that Abu Sayyaf is just “riding the bandwagon” of ISIL.

The “popemobile” for the Manila trip will pay homage to the jeepney, the Philippines’ famous buses. It will be heavily armored but doesn’t have bulletproof glass, which Francis disdains because it is like a “sardine can” that walls him off from followers.

The pope will also be protected by the Philippine military, including two battalions of Filipino UN peacekeepers along with plainclothes officers from the Vatican Swiss Guards. By law Swiss Guards have to be Swiss, Catholic, and male, and are trained to use the halberd, a combination spear and axe.

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