As Pope Francis continues to straddle the fine line between calling for the end of persecution of Christians in Iraq and blessing American airstrikes against the Islamic State (also known as the “Caliphate,” ISIS, or ISIL), there is increasing concern for the pontiff’s—and the public’s—safety.
Earlier this week, the Roman newspaper Il Tempo published a disturbing report that Francis is “in the crosshairs” of ISIS for “bearing false witness” against Islam.
Citing anonymous sources within Italy’s intelligence community and pointing to notable heightened security in Rome, the paper went on to say that ISIS plans to heat things up by “raising the level of confrontation” with Europe, Italy and very specifically Pope Francis, the “greatest exponent of the Christian religions.”
The Vatican downplayed the concerns, calling them unfounded despite growing concern in Italy that it is not just the Pope who is under threat. “There is nothing serious to this,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told Catholic News Agency. “There is no particular concern in the Vatican.”
The Italian government apparently begs to differ. Earlier this week, Italy’s deputy interior minister Filippo Bubbico said that Italy and the Vatican are equally at risk after authorities issued a terrorism alert, warning ISIS could launch terrorist attacks on what they referred to as “sensitive targets” in Rome and elsewhere, specifically pinpointing embassies to both Italy and the Holy See, Catholic churches, bus and train stations, sea ports, airports and travel agencies.
Other security measures include restricting air space above Vatican City and Italy’s foreign ministry, in addition to stepped up police presence in public transportation hubs and busy tourist sites like the Coliseum, the Spanish Steps and St. Peter’s Square. “ISIS poses an international and European security threat and we in Italy feel particularly exposed,” Bubbico told Italian SKY news.
The terrorism alert came the day after Italy’s parliament approved a measure to start shipping weapons to help arm Kurdish peshmerga troops fighting ISIS—a promise made by Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi on a state visit to Iraq earlier this month. Sicilian seaports that will facilitate the shipment have already stepped up security measures, especially on incoming vessels.
Since the terrorist alert and heightened security, at least five suspected potential jihad fighters were arrested near Venice this week as they prepared to leave for Iraq. Italy’s leading Corriere della Sera newspaper reported that at least 50 Italians are now known to be fighting with ISIS, pointing out that 80 percent are “very Italian” and only 20 percent are sons of immigrants, dispelling fears among some Italians that a spike in illegal immigration has somehow played a role in the recruitment of young people.
Instead, the rise in recruits from Italy is fueled by “disillusionment with the future,” “distrust in the Catholic Church,” and “boredom,” according to the paper, which said all the known fighters are men between the ages of 18-25.
By no coincidence, perhaps, the bulk of the known ISIS foreign fighters from Italy hail from the northern regions where the controversial jihadi recruiter Imam Bilal Bosnic worked until Italy’s counterterrorism police started investigating him last year. Bosnic has admitted to trying to recruit converted Italian Muslims to fight with and finance ISIS.
According to police investigating the five alleged jihadi fighters in Venice, Bosnian Imam Ismar Mesinovic also worked to recruit young Italians and was a close associate of Bosnic. Mesinovic was killed in battle in Syria last year after taking his two-year-old son with him to fight, according to police reports and interrogations with his wife, who is searching for information about the whereabouts of her young child.
Bosnic, who is now in Bosnia, gave an extensive interview to La Repubblica that ran on Thursday, in which he defended his recruitment technics as war tactics. He said that Greta Raminelli and Vanessa Marluzzo, two Italian aid workers currently being held in Iraq, “deserved to be kidnapped because they were interfering with the Muslim state,” adding that “it is the duty of every good Muslim to be involved in some way in the jihad, fighting, helping, giving assistance each according to his ability, even with financing.”
He also told the paper that journalist James Foley deserved to die and that they will one day conquer the Vatican. “Foley was a spy. This is widely known. Killing is justified in some cases. In Islam it is acceptable to kill a prisoner if in some way this can be scary to the enemy. I understand that may sound terrible but we are fighting a war, that was a war tactic,” he said. “We Muslims believe that one day the whole world will be an Islamic state. Our goal is to make sure that even the Vatican will be Muslim. Maybe I will not be able to see it, but that time will come.”