May 13

This Day in History

General Interest

May 13, 1981:

Pope John Paul II shot

Near the start of his weekly general audience in Rome's St. Peter's Square, Pope John Paul II is shot and seriously wounded while passing through the square in an open car. The assailant, 23-year-old escaped Turkish murderer Mehmet Ali Agca, fired four shots, one of which hit the pontiff in the abdomen, narrowly missing vital organs, and another that hit the pope's left hand. A third bullet struck 60-year-old American Ann Odre in the chest, seriously wounding her, and the fourth hit 21-year-old Jamaican Rose Hill in the arm. Agca's weapon was knocked out of his hand by bystanders, and he was detained until his arrest by police. The pope was rushed by ambulance to Rome's Gemelli Hospital, where he underwent more than five hours of surgery and was listed in critical but stable condition.

John Paul II, once the spiritual leader of almost 600 million Roman Catholics around the world, was invested in 1978 as the first Polish pope and the first non-Italian pope in 456 years. Fluent in seven modern languages and Latin, he was known as an avid traveler who had little fear of going out in public. Four days after being shot, he offered forgiveness to his would-be assassin from his hospital bed. The pontiff spent three weeks in the hospital before being released fully recovered from his wounds.

The motives of Mehmet Ali Agca in attempting to kill the head of the Roman Catholic Church were enigmatic, and remain so today. In the 1970s, Agca joined a right-wing Turkish terrorist group known as the Gray Wolves. The group is held responsible for the assassination of hundreds of public officials, labor organizers, journalists, and left-wing activists as part of their mission to cleanse Turkey of leftist influence. In recent years, it has been revealed that the Gray Wolves had close ties with far-right politicians, intelligence officers, and police commanders. In February 1979, Abdi Ipekci, a liberal newspaper editor, was murdered near his home in Istanbul. Mehmet Ali Agca was arrested and charged with the crime. While awaiting his trial, Agca escaped from a military prison in November 1979.

In his cell, he left behind a letter that concerned John Paul II's planned trip to Turkey. The letter read: "Western imperialists who are afraid of Turkey's unity of political, military, and economic power with the brotherly Islamic countries are sending the Crusader Commander John Paul under the mask of a religions leader. If this ill-timed and meaningless visit is not called off, I will definitely shoot the pope. This is the only reason that I escaped from prison." Because of this threat, security was tightened during the pope's Turkish visit, and there was no assassination attempt. A Turkish court convicted Agca of murder in absentia, and he remained at large.

On May 9, 1981, Agca took a plane from Majorca to Milan and entered Italy under an assumed name. He took a room in a hotel near the Vatican and on May 13 walked into St. Peter's Square and shot the pope with a 9mm Browning automatic. A handwritten note was found in his pocket that read: "I am killing the pope as a protest against the imperialism of the Soviet Union and the United States and against the genocide that is being carried out in Salvador and Afghanistan." He pleaded guilty, saying he acted alone, and in July 1981 was sentenced to life in prison.

In 1982, Agca announced that his assassination attempt was actually part of a conspiracy involving the Bulgarian intelligence services, which was known to act on behalf of the KGB. Pope John Paul II was a fervent anti-communist who supported the Solidarity trade union in his native Poland, which seemed to make him an appropriate target for the communists. In 1983, despite these developments, the pope met with Mehmet in prison and offered him forgiveness. Further interrogations of Agca led to the arrest of three Bulgarians and three Turks, who went on trial in 1985.

As the trial opened, the case against the Bulgarian and Turkish defendants collapsed when Agca, the state's key witness, described himself as Jesus Christ and predicted the imminent end of the world. He explained that the Bulgarian scenario was concocted by Western intelligence officials, and that God had in fact led him to shoot John Paul II. The attack, he explained, was "tied to the Third Secret of the Madonna of Fatima." The secrets of Fatima were three messages that Catholic tradition says the Virgin Mary imparted to three Portuguese shepherd children in an apparition in 1917. The first message allegedly predicted World War II, the second the rise (and fall) of the Soviet Union, and the third was still a Vatican secret in 1985. In 1986, the Bulgarian and Turkish defendants were acquitted for lack of evidence.

In the late 1990s, Pope John Paul II expressed his hope that the Italian government would pardon Mehmet in 2000. The pontiff had made 2000 a holy "Jubilee" year, of which forgiveness was to be a cornerstone. On May 13, 2000, the 19th anniversary of the attempt on his life, the pope visited Fatima, Portugal. The same day, the Third Secret of Fatima was announced by Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Sodano. Sodano described the secret as a "prophetic vision" in which "a bishop clothed in white...falls to the ground, apparently dead, under a burst of gunfire." The Vatican interpreted this as a prediction of the attempt on John Paul II's life. Mehmet Ali Agca, who had guessed the alleged Fatima-assassination connection in 1985, was pardoned by Italian President Carolo Ciampi on June 14, 2000. Extradited to Turkey, he began serving the eight years remaining on the sentence for his 1979 murder of the Turkish newspaper editor.

In February 2005, Pope John Paul II was hospitalized with complications from the flu. He died two months later, on April 2, 2005, at his home in the Vatican. Six days later two million people packed Vatican City for his funeral--said to be the biggest funeral in history. Although it was not confirmed by the Vatican until 2003, many believe Pope John Paul II began suffering from Parkinson's disease in the early 1990s. He began to develop slurred speech and had difficulty walking, though he continued to keep up a physically demanding travel schedule. In his final years, he was forced to delegate many of his official duties, but still found the strength to speak to the faithful from a window at the Vatican.

Pope John Paul II is remembered for his successful efforts to end communism, as well as for building bridges with peoples of other faiths, and issuing the Catholic Church's first apology for its actions during World War II. He was succeeded by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI. Benedict XVI began the process to beatify John Paul II in May 2005.

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