ROME — While acknowledging that ISIS represents a real threat to Pope Francis and the Vatican, the commander of the Vatican gendarmes says security services have no knowledge of a planned attack.
“The threat exists. This is what has emerged from my conversations with Italian and foreign colleagues,” said Domenico Giani, inspector general of the Corpo della Gendarmeria, the police and security service for the Vatican City State.
“At the moment, I can say that we know of no plan for an attack against the Vatican or the Holy Father,” Giani said.
The comments came in an interview with Giani in the March edition of the Italian magazine Polizia Moderna, an official publication of Italy’s state police.
The Italian government went on high alert last week after threats from the Islamic State called Italy “the nation signed with the blood of the cross.”
The video threat, released with images of 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt who were beheaded this month, warned that Islamic State forces were “south of Rome,” in Libya. At its closest point, Libya is little more than 100 miles from the Italian islands of Sicily and Sardinia.
This comes four months after the Islamic State’s propaganda magazine Dabiq ran a cover photo of the militant group’s flag flying above the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican with the headline: “The failed crusade.”
In the interview, Giani also said that the collaboration between the Vatican and Muslim countries around the world is good, and that these sources give him “valuable information” on ISIS.
Muslim countries also send “declarations of esteem and admiration for the Holy Father,” Giani said. “I can say that today, Islam regards and respects the Holy Father as the world’s most influential moral authority.”
Referring to the pope’s attitude regarding the threats against him, Giani said that Francis has no intention of changing the style of his pontificate, which he said is founded on proximity between the pope and the people.
“Even as pope,” Giani said, “he’s still a priest who doesn’t want to lose the contact with his flock. It’s us, those in charge of his safety, are the ones that have to help him, not the other way around.”
Francis’ lack of concern for his safety is not new.
While serving as the archbishop of Buenos Aires in 2009, the Argentinian government once asked Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to wear a bulletproof vest in response to anonymous reports that a local union leader was planning the prelate’s assassination.
Considering it uncomfortable, and preferring to trust in God’s protection, the future pope wore it only once and then gave it to a friend.
The pope has referred to his own safety on various occasions, most recently during the plane ride from Sri Lanka to the Philippines last January, when he told the journalists traveling with him that he has a “healthy dose of obliviousness” about his own safety.
As for the safety of the faithful who attend one of his events, the pontiff said, “I worry about it, truly.”
Giani said the pope is well aware of the threat he faces, but is mostly concerned for the faithful.
“The Vatican is a place tens of thousands of people pass through every day, between visits to the Basilica, the Museums, and the Audiences. They need to feel relaxed and safe,” Giani said.
Talking about the most dangerous moment of his 16 years serving the Vatican’s gendarmerie, nine of which as a commandeer, Giani pointed to the period after a speech by Benedict XVI in Regensburg, Germany, in December 2006.
“[It was] an intervention that reread today seems prophetic for the denunciation of the degradation of some extremist Islam, which [back] then generated protests and very strong threats against the pope,” he said.
In Regensburg, Benedict XVI quoted an obscure 14th-century dialogue between a long-forgotten Byzantine Christian emperor and a Persian scholar, in which the emperor associates Muhammad with violence.
Giani also said that the 130 police officers who safeguard the Vatican aren’t enough.
“Given the risks that we face, there should be more of us,” he said. But, he added, there are budget constraints and an austerity plan in the Vatican.
When questioned about the profiles of a candidate for the male-only position of Vatican Gendarme, Giani mentioned being Catholic and loving the Church, standing at least 5’8”, and being a high school graduate. Having served in the military isn’t required, Giani said, but is an advantage.