Habeeb Al Sadr warns that Isil’s “band of criminals” could have Pope Francis in its sights, ahead of the pontiff’s visits to Albania and Turkey
Pope Francis is at risk of an assassination attempt by the Islamic extremists of Isil, the Vatican has been warned, ahead of his first visit to a Muslim-majority country this weekend.
As the 77-year-old pontiff prepares to travel to Albania on Sunday for a one-day visit, Iraq’s ambassador to the Holy See said there were credible threats against the pontiff’s life.
The leader of the Roman Catholic Church could also be vulnerable when he travels to Turkey in November, the ambassador said.
Jihadists from Isil have in recent weeks boasted of wanting to extend their caliphate to Rome, the heart of Western Christendom, and have talked of planting the jihadist black flag on top of St Peter’s Basilica.
Habeeb Al Sadr said there were also indications of a more specific threat against Pope Francis, who recently spoke out in favor of the US and its allies halting the advance of Isil in Syria and Iraq.
“What has been declared by the self-declared Islamic State is clear – they want to kill the Pope. The threats against the Pope are credible,” the ambassador told La Nazione, an Italian daily, on Tuesday.
“I believe they could try to kill him during one of his overseas trips or even in Rome. There are members of Isil who are not Arabs but Canadian, American, French, British, also Italians.
“Isil could engage any of these to commit a terrorist attack in Europe.”
The ambassador said the Pope had made himself a target by speaking out against the human rights abuses committed against Christians in Syria and Iraq, as well as by his approval of attempts by the US to try to roll back Isil.
“In cases like this, where there is an unjust aggression, then it is licit to halt the aggressor,” he said in an interview during his flight back from a visit to South Korea last month.
“But I stress ‘halt’. I don’t say bomb, or make war, but rather stop him,” the Pope said.
The ambassador, who has been stationed in Rome for four years, said: “This band of criminals does not just issue threats – in Iraq they have already violated and destroyed some of the most sacred sites of the Shiite faith. They have struck at Yazidi and Christian places of worship. They have declared that whoever is not with them, is against them. Either convert or be killed. And they are doing it – it is a genocide.”
The Vatican downplayed the warning, saying that it had received no credible reports of a threat to the Pope’s life and that he would not be changing his daily routine or reviewing his trip to Albania.
“There are no specific threats or risks that would change the Pope’s behaviour or the way the trip is organised,” said Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
During the Pope’s trip to Tirana, the Albanian capital, on Sunday, he will celebrate Mass in the city’s main square and drive around in his open-topped Popemobile, as usual, Father Lombardi said.
The Pope wanted there to be “no obstacles” between him and the ordinary people he will encounter.
No extra security measures would be taken for the Albania trip, despite previous warnings that Albanian jihadists who had returned home from fighting in Syria or Iraq might be planning an attack.
Vatican security officials are “calm” ahead of the one-day visit, the Rev Lombardi said.
The trip to Albania is intended to celebrate the rebirth of Christianity after religious belief was crushed under the Communist rule of Enver Hoxha, and to demonstrate how Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims live in harmony in the country of three million people.
Hoxha, a hardline dictator, declared Albania the world’s first atheist state in 1967 and allowed the persecution of Catholics.
The Pope’s trip to Turkey, which will include events in Ankara and Istanbul, is expected to take place on Nov 29 and 30.