May 13

This Day in History

Crime

May 13, 1981:

Pope John Paul II is shot

Pope John Paul II is shot and wounded at St. Peter's Square in Rome, Italy. Turkish terrorist Mehmet Ali Agca, an escaped fugitive already convicted of a previous murder, fired several shots at the religious leader, two of which wounded nearby tourists. Agca was immediately captured.

Agca claimed that he had planned to go to England to kill the king but couldn't because it turned out there was only a queen and "Turks don't shoot women." He also claimed to have Palestinian connections, although the PLO quickly denied any involvement. Detectives believed that his confession had been coached in order to throw investigators offtrack.

When his trial began on July 20, 1981, Agca tried an unlikely legal gambit: He maintained that Italy did not have the right to prosecute him since the crime occurred at the Vatican. Although he threatened to go on a hunger strike if his trial wasn't shifted to a Vatican court, his request was denied and he was found guilty two days later. He was sentenced to life in prison but released in 2010 due to several amnesties and changes to the penal code.

Many people argued that the very unusual and short trial must have been an effort to cover up evidence of a conspiracy. In fact, Italian authorities had their own suspicions but did not want to disclose them in a highly publicized trial. Instead, they conducted a relatively quiet investigation into the connection between Agca and Bulgaria's KGB-connected intelligence agency.

The motive behind an alleged Soviet-inspired assassination must be viewed in the context of the Cold War in 1981. Pope John Paul II was Polish-born and openly supportive of the democratic movement in that country. His visit to Poland in 1979 worried the Kremlin, which saw its hold on Eastern Europe in danger.

Although the exact extent of the conspiracy remains unknown today, Agca reportedly met with Bulgarian spies Sergei Antonov, Zhelio Vassilev, Todor Aivazov, and Bekir Celenk in Rome about assassinating Lech Walesa, the Polish labor union leader. However, this plan was abandoned when Agca was offered $1.25 million to kill the pope.

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