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How to Protect the Pope in the Philippines: A New Popemobile, Tons of Security, and Adult Diapers

Assassins targeted two previous popes who visited the Philippines, so the country is pulling out all the stops to keep Pope Francis safe when he arrives on Thursday in Manila.
January 14, 2015, 10:43am
Photo by Alfredo Borba via Wikimedia Commons

When Pope Francis arrives Thursday in Manila, he will be the first pope to visit the Philippines in nearly 20 years — perhaps because two previous popes were nearly assassinated during their trips to the country.

Now, with the country engaged in a bitter war with Islamic separatists, the Filipino government is pulling out all the stops to prevent a third papal assassination plot. The nation will deploy 37,000 security personnel during the pope's visit.

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"We have prepared for all scenarios with all resources we have," Department of Defense spokesman Peter Paul Galvez told local media in Manila. "All government security agencies are in close coordination to ensure that our brothers and sisters attending and observing this event concentrate and fully experience the spiritual encounter of the pope's pastoral visit to the Filipino flock."

Authorities expect 6 million Filipinos to gather to see the pope. Manila will order 2,000 traffic enforcers to wear adult diapers while on duty so that they can be constantly vigilant in managing the crowds that are expected to overrun the city's streets.

"If you attend an event that will last for 24 hours, you cannot go around looking for a [portable toilet]," Metropolitan Manila Development Authority chairman Francis Tolentino said.

Security forces are taking the extraordinary measures for good reason. Even though the Philippines is home to 80 million Catholics — a legacy of Spanish colonialism that is unique in Southeast Asia — the country has been the scene of two major assassination attempts against the papacy.

The last pope to visit the Philippines was John Paul II in 1995. A week before his January visit, local police foiled an international terror plot to assassinate the pontiff.

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The plot was masterminded by Ramzi Yousef, the man who orchestrated the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks. The two planned a suicide bombing that involved a man dressed as a priest. It was supposed to be the first phase in an international terror campaign that would culminate with a commercial aircraft crashing into CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

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Yousef was eventually arrested in Pakistan and is currently serving a life sentence in a Colorado prison. Mohammed is currently a detainee at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay. John Paul II, meanwhile, preached to a crowd of 4 million people in Manila, one of the largest audiences ever to hear the pope speak.

The other papal attack occurred in 1970 shortly after Pope Paul VI landed at the Manila airport. Bolivian painter Benjamin Mendoza attempted to slash the pope's throat after carrying a 13-inch dagger through airport security while dressed as a priest. The 73-year-old pope escaped with minor chest wounds and Mendoza was arrested.

The main security issue for the current pope's visit will be the various separatist militias currently fighting in the Philippines. Islamist groups Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) have pledged allegiance to Islamic State, and have waged an ongoing battle to create their own state in the southern province of Mindanao. The BIFF was accused in December of blowing up a bus, killing 10 people and wounding 42 others.

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Iraq's ambassador to the Vatican warned in September that Islamic State militants want to kill the pope. "Threats against the Pope are credible," Habeeb Al Sadr told Italian newspaper La Nazione. "Public statements and crimes against Christianity by ISIS are a fact. Just put two and two together."

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Al Sadr admitted he was "not aware of specific facts or operational projects," targeting the pope, but added "what has been said by the self-declared Islamic State terrorists is clear: They want to kill the Pope."

At least one Filipino rebel group claims they pose no threat to Francis. On Sunday, thePhilippine Daily Inquirer reported that the New People's Army, a Maoist rebel group, plans to declare a ceasefire especially for his visit.

"Since most of our fighters are Catholics, it was just fitting to pay respect during Pope Francis' visit in the country by extending the ceasefire," Efren Aksasato, one of the group's leaders, said in a statement.

Aksasato stressed that the guerillas are "as excited as those in the mainstream of society" about the pope's visit.

While the government of the Philippines will be focused on keeping the pope alive, Francis himself has continued with his policy of eschewing high security and luxury in favor of a common touch.

The Vatican media department released an image Saturday of the new 'popemobile' the pontiff will use during his tour of the Philippines.

The 'popemobile' is a converted jeepney, a type of modified bus that is the most common form of public transportation in the Philippines. Known for ferrying average Filipinos around crowded urban centers, the vehicle has become something of a national icon.

— VaticanCommunication (@PCCS_VA)January 9, 2015

Francis previously ordered the removal the clear bulletproof box that encased the popemobile used by his predecessors. He described the safety measure as feeling like a "sardine can," and said he prefers open top vehicles that allow him to interact with crowds.

Despite the history of papal assassination attempts and threat posed by Islamist groups, authorities in the Philippines have stressed that the Vatican has nothing to worry about.

"So far we have no serious threat coming out of our radar screen," Col. Resituto Padilla, spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines told local media Monday. He said their most serious challenge will be "crowd control" and dealing with the throngs of people expected to flood Manila's streets.