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The attempted assassination of Saint Pope John Paul II

28 March 2024

5 mins

By Elena Leman-Torresi

As a component of my final-year module, PIC604: State, Violence and Terrorism, I was tasked to write a critical analysis of a terrorist attack. This essay prompted me to research and think more closely about the definition of a terrorist attack, the perceived legitimacy of an attack, and the different responses/approaches taken after the attack. I decided to research the assassination attempt on Saint Pope John Paul II in 1981.

In 1981, while making his regular rounds in St Peter’s Square, Vatican City, the then pontiff, Pope John Paul II was shot by two bullets from within the crowd. The perpetrator was Mehmet Ali Ağca. To this day, Ali Ağca’s true motives remain unclear and dubious. Ağca was a Turkish national and spent much time with the nationalistic group, The Grey Wolves. He claimed once that the attack on the Pope was for revenge for a previous seizure of a mosque (not linked back to the Vatican in any way) and for the glory of the Turkish nation. A second motive he declared was he was trained by the KGB to carry out this attack as Pope John Paul II was a firm anti-communist who regularly funded the independent trade union Solidarnosc in his home country of Poland (see Faunt, 2015, for details). Lastly, it is important to note that Ağca was subsequently diagnosed with severe anti-social disorders and behaviours and narcissist injuries. It can never be confirmed how much his mental illness was a factor in the attack.

While it is easy for Catholics and non-Catholics alike to condemn the violent act committed by Ağca, if this module has taught me anything, it’s that careful analysis of the response to the attack is equally as important as the initial media telling of the attack itself. I took particular interest in the relationship between the representation and response of the media to the shooting and public perceptions of terrorist attacks. Moreover, from Kearns et al (2018) I learnt that Muslim and Middle Eastern perpetrators are far more quickly labelled terrorists by the media and public at large and often discussion of their mental health issues and their grievances/motives are discounted or omitted, unlike their European/white counterparts. So: without condoning the actions of Ağca, the media’s initial lack of discussion of his mental health issues and his grievances may have led the public to form speculative and uninformed conclusions which in turn might have exacerbated public panic.

As a Catholic, I was also very intrigued by the Vatican’s response. While most larger states would likely have employed militaristic responses or adopted suppression tactics, the Vatican used judicial responses. Ağca was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum of ten years. However, what was unique about the Vatican’s response was the use of conciliatory tactics, seldom used by states. In line with Catholic social teaching, Pope John Paul II (who survived the attack) visited Ağca in prison in 1983 and forgave him. Following on from this, Ağca was pardoned by the Vatican and extradited to Turkey after 19 years in custody. While an incredible act of forgiveness and charity by the Pope, Ethan Bueno de Mesquita (2015) speculates that the Vatican City also potentially stood to gain collaboration with Ağca in other counterterrorism efforts.

I mentioned earlier that I was motivated to research this topic as I am Catholic. I should also add that I became fascinated by this assassination attempt after watching a documentary entitled Vatican Girl (2022) which focuses on the abduction of a young Vatican City citizen, Emanuela Orlandi. It is speculated that Ağca played an instrumental role in the planning and kidnapping of Emanuela. There is also the suggestion/theory that she became a victim in the broader subsequent considerations of statecraft and diplomacy between the Vatican and the outside world. My thoughts and prayers are with the Orlandi family.

The module prompted me to reevaluate my perceptions and definitions of terrorism, including an appreciation of its many complexities.

About me:

I am currently a final-year undergraduate student, studying History and International Relations. I first knew I wanted to study history academically during my GCSE history course. I have recently been elected chair of the Catholic Society for the upcoming term and my studies and my faith converge in a fascination with Church history.

Recommended further reading:

The illustration is Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican. Photo by Hoàng Vũ and courtesy of pexels:

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