Wary of Risks in Jubilee Year, Rome Is on Alert


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Workers installed metal detectors at St. Peter’s Square on Thursday, five days before the start of the Vatican’s yearlong Jubilee.

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Vincenzo Pinto/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

ROME — On a recent morning on St. Peter’s Square, alongside the bustling priests and nuns, would-be tour guides and vendors hawking cheap umbrellas, military police officers stood guard with submachine guns. But that is just the beginning.

On Tuesday — the start of what Pope Francis has declared a holy year, or Jubilee of Mercy, that is expected to draw millions of visitors — anyone entering the square will be subjected to airport-style screening, including metal detectors and X-ray machines. Pilgrims and tourists take note: Expect long lines.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, jitters about terrorism have spread far beyond the borders of France. Romans are on edge as well.

Rome already attracts more than 16 million tourists each year, according to its tourism department. But the Jubilee, which is usually held every 25 years, with the occasional exception (the last was in 2000), is expected to draw many more. And some Italians are concerned that the city is not equipped to handle the surge.

It has not helped, critics say, that Rome’s mayor, Ignazio Marino, resigned in October amid growing tensions in his administration and with the Vatican, and that the city is now run by a commissioner.

Rome’s police chief, Nicolò D’Angelo, said at a news conference in November that the tighter security measures were a response to a “Jubilee in the time of ISIS,” as the Islamic State militant group is known. They will extend beyond the Vatican to much of the city.

Two thousand officers will patrol the streets every day, checking areas where pilgrims and tourists congregate, but also the capital’s sprawling suburbs. Roman neighborhoods where night life thrives will be monitored, as will the Olympic stadium when matches are played.

Controls will be strengthened at the airports and bus depots serving the city and at Civitavecchia Port, about an hour away, where cruise ships dock. The police will make spot checks on buses and subway cars. Video surveillance will be increased downtown and around major basilicas, which pilgrims visit during the Holy Year.

And reinforcements will be on call when huge crowds are expected, like in February for the transfer to Rome of the mortal remains of Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, a popular saint. Starting Dec. 8, the skies over Rome will become a no-fly zone; drone aircraft have also been banned.

“We can’t underestimate anything,” Mr. D’Angelo said of the controls, included in a 220-page plan that draws from Italy’s experience defeating domestic terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s.

“We developed this plan over time, because the terrorism alarm didn’t start yesterday,” Mr. D’Angelo added.

Still, the doubts are such that spontaneous protests have surged on social media to halt the Jubilee, which many here see as an unnecessary risk in risky times. But appeals to the Vatican under the hashtags #nogiubileo and #stopgiubileo, as well as impromptu demonstrations, have fallen on deaf ears.

Through various prelates, including the Vatican’s chief spokesman, the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church have vowed that the Jubilee will go on.

“We have all the reasons to think that there is a total guarantee with regards to the safety of the pilgrims that will come to Rome, but that, obviously, it is necessary to adopt the appropriate measures, as is the case throughout the world,” said Archbishop Rino Fisichella, the Vatican official whose office is responsible for the Jubilee. “I don’t see why the situation in Rome has to be overdramatized.”

Though pilgrims will congregate mainly at the Vatican and at the major basilicas in Rome, security measures are being put in place at many tourist sites.

At the Colosseum, which featured prominently in an apparent Islamic State social media campaign to attack Rome this year, X-ray machines and walk-through metal detectors should be in place by next year. Ticket booths will also be moved to improve access to the Colosseum, the most visited monument in Italy.

“We want to have few places of mass congregation, not only because they could be possible targets, but also, we’re concerned about potential panic,” a spokesman for the site said.

Monuments that are already monitored — like the Great Synagogue of Rome, which was attacked by Palestinian militants on Oct. 9, 1982, killing a 2-year-old boy and wounding more than three dozen people — will get heightened attention.

Security was tightened in Rome’s Jewish neighborhood in mid-November after an Orthodox Jewish man was stabbed on a street in Milan, an attack that remains unsolved.

Patrols now move more frequently through the “ghetto,” as the area is known, and armed police officers are more visible. “Paradoxically, nowadays a restaurant on Via Portico d’Ottavia is one of the most secure places in Rome,” Fabio Perugia, the spokesman for the Jewish Community of Rome, said of a restaurant-lined street there.

In recent weeks, the police have been bombarded with calls and alerts — false alarms — regarding abandoned knapsacks or luggage, prompting temporary shutdowns of the subway system on numerous occasions. To allay fraught nerves, Italian officials have played down the potential of an attack and played up the country’s ability to handle emergencies.

“The government perceived that a sense of panic was spreading,” Germano Dottori, a lecturer of strategic studies at Rome’s Luiss Guido Carli University, said of the frequent news reports on the government’s strategies.

Yet Mr. Dottori likes to cite an episode that made only moderate waves in the Italian news media when it happened, yet shows how easily security can be breached.

Last December, a month after the pope visited Turkey, Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish terrorist who tried to kill Pope John Paul II in 1981, entered Italy without the required visa and reached St. Peter’s Basilica, a camera crew in tow, to lay flowers at the tomb of the pope, who died in 2005.

Security forces in the square stopped Mr. Agca, but he was allowed to enter the basilica and place white roses on the tomb. The Italian police then detained him, and he was later expelled from the country.

“I think he was delivering a message that still has to be deciphered,” Mr. Dottori said, positing two explanations. The visit could have been a direct threat to the Vatican, he said, or could have a less overt interpretation: “You are in danger, and your security is not tight at all.”



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