The plot to kill the Pope

Robert Miller June 10 1985

The plot to kill the Pope

Robert Miller June 10 1985

The plot to kill the Pope


Robert Miller

The trial promised to be sensational, and it was—right from the start. The defendants were held in white steelbarred cages, shielded by bul-

letproof glass. The courtroom itself was surrounded by black-uniformed carabinieri carrying automatic weapons, while police helicopters hovered overhead. Three of the eight accused were beyond the court’s reach in the Bulgari-

an capital of Sofia, and a fourth was on the run. The prosecution’s case threatened to lead to a major disruption in East-West relations, and it did provoke anger within the Soviet bloc and extreme wariness among Western governments. Promised testimony involved civilian unrest in Poland, spies, international terrorism, forged passports, gunrunning and the heroin trade. The victim—Pope John Paul lí—had long ago forgiven the deeds of his enemies. And as the so-called “trial of the century” began last week in Rome, the state’s star witness—a 27-year-old Turkish terrorist named Mehmet Ali Agca—stunned the prosecution by proclaiming himself to be Jesus Christ. As well, Agca challenged the Vatican to reveal one of its most closely guarded

secrets and forecast the end of the world “in this generation.”

Conspiracy: In the trial, the Italian justice ministry is attempting to prove that the shooting was the result of a Communist plot. In the hands of even the most accomplished of thriller writers the material would probably seem too rich. But according to Antonio Marini, the 44-year-old, white-haired state prosecutor, “The plot to kill the Pope,” as the case has become widely known, is fact, not fiction. To that end, the prose-

cution aimed to persuade Court of Assize Judge Severino Santiapichi, 60, and his adjudicating panel of one other judge and six jurors that the Soviet Union was so concerned about civilian unrest in Poland during the winter of 1980-81 that it sanctioned a Bulgarian plan to murder the first Polish pope.

Both Moscow and Sofia have vehemently denied the allegation, and the Bulgarians have accused the Central Intelligence Agency of masterminding the attempt on John Paul’s life in an illconceived effort to smear the Communist bloc. Although the U.S. government dismissed the Bulgarian charges as preposterous, Washington has refrained from trying to make political capital from the Italian case—evidently in the interest of preventing any further de-

terioriation of U.S.-Soviet relations (page 31 ).

But according to examining magistrate Ilario Martella, 49, whose twoyear investigation culminated in a report last Oct. 26 which forms the basis of the Italian prosecution, “It must be certain that there was an international plot to kill the Pope.” The prosecution contends that the Bulgarian secret police spawned the conspiracy in late 1980, enlisting Turkish underworld leaders who in turn recruited Agca and other

members of a right-wing Moslem terrorist group known as the Grey Wolves. The terrorists’ alleged assignment: to kill John Paul for a fee of $1.7 million. The alleged motive for the plot: to curb the spread of civil unrest in the Pope’s native Poland, where the now-banned Solidarity trade union movement under Lech Walesa was increasingly defiant of Communist party authorities. According to this theory, the Soviets viewed the Roman Catholic Church as a subversive element doing John Paul’s bidding and lending the Vatican’s moral authority to Solidarity’s anti-Communist crusade. If it succeeded, the Kremlin may have feared, none of Moscow’s Eastern European satellites would be safe.

Heroin: According to the Italian justice ministry, the Bulgarian scheme had

the tacit, if not active, support of the Soviet KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti—the Committee for State Security). The KGB was then under the command of Yuri Andropov, who subsequently rose to the Soviet leadership before the so-called “Bulgarian Connection”with Agca was suspected. Andropov died in February, 1984, after barely 15 months as Soviet leader, a period in which East-West relations all but collapsed over the issue of nuclear weapons in Europe. And according to such U.S. authorities as former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Andropov would have been aware of—and in control of—a Bulgarian mission of the magnitude of a papal assassination. Said Kissinger: “If you try to square the known facts, it really leads to no other conclusion.”

Despair: Agca, before he shot the Pope, had escaped from a Turkish prison while awaiting trial for the 1979 murder of Abdi Ipekci, editor of Milliyet, a widely distributed liberal Turkish newspaper. He is serving a life term in Italy for shooting and wounding the Pope—convicted in July, 1981, after a three-day trial. The prosecution initially accepted Agca’s early claim that he was acting alone on May 13,1981, when he fired his 9-mm Browning automatic pistol at the pontiff, hitting him in the lower abdomen. But a second man was photographed running from the scene, and eyewitnesses disagreed on the number of shots fired. The second man now is believed to have been Oral Celik, 25, a boyhood friend of Agca’s and a member of the Grey Wolves, who is currently being sought by Swiss authorities on heroin-smuggling charges. After Agca was convicted, while serving a year in solitary confinement, he apparently began to despair of escaping. He then began to change his story—implicating not only fellow Turks but Bulgarian government officials. The trial that began last week grew out of Agca’s revised and often contradictory statements to Italian authorities, which opened the door to Martella’s exhaustive investigation. Martella’s report was based on an estimated 25,000 pages of still-secret testimony and evidence.

Suspicion: Charged are three Bulgarians and five Turks, including Agca himself, on a new charge of conspiring to smuggle a weapon into Italy. The Bulgarians: Sergei Ivanov Antonov, 37, head of the Rome office of Balkanair, the Bulgarian state airline, who has been under house arrest for more than a year, much of which he spent under medical care; Todor Aivazov, 41, former administrator of the Bulgarian Embassy in Rome; and Zhelyo Vasilev, 43, former secretary to the embassy’s military attaché. Both Aivazov and Vasilev had returned to Sofia before they came un-

der suspicion, and the Bulgarian government has refused Italian requests for their extradition. They are being tried in absentia, but Antonov was in court last week. He was arrested on Nov. 25, 1982, after Agca claimed that the Bulgarian had driven him and a second gunman to St. Peter’s Square just before the Pope was shot. He was subsequently moved from Rome’s Rebibbia Prison to an apartment under a doctor’s care.

Accomplice: Two of the Turks, Celik, who is a fugitive, and Bekir Celenk, 51, a reputed Turkish underworld leader now under police supervision in Sofia, are also being tried in absentia. The others: Musa Serdar Celebi, 33, leader of a West German-based right-wing organization known as the European Turkish Federation which promotes pan-Turkism, and Omer Bagci, 39, a Turkish migrant worker who lived in Switzerland before he was extradited to Italy. Celebi is charged with aiding Agca by providing funds and refuge in the weeks before the assassination attempt. And Bagci is charged with carrying the 9-mm Browning to Agca from Switzerland to Milan, four days before the Pope was shot. On the third day of the trial Bagci testified that he had, in fact, delivered the weapon to Agca, the first public confirmation of Agca’s claim that he had not acted alone. Each of the accused faces the possibility of life imprisonment, and the trial may last as long as a year. No fewer than 123 possible witnesses have already been named by the prosecution and defence lawyers, and the list is expected to grow. So, possibly, is the number of defendants, as testimony unfolds. The prosecution last week considered charging at least two more Turks as a consequence of Bagci’s testimony.

Much of the prosecution’s case rested on Agca’s credibility as a witness, and his dramatic outbursts on the first two days of the trial threatened to damage his subsequent testimony. The trial had barely opened when Agca created a storm in the Foro Italico courtroom—a converted gymnasium near the Olympic Stadium on the north side of Rome, where the 1982 trial of Red Brigades assassins was held under equally heavy security. Speaking the guttural Italian that he has learned in prison, but with an intonation that reminded listeners of John Paul, he suddenly shouted from inside his prisoner’s cage: “I am Jesus Christ. I am omnipotent. I announce the end of the world.”

Fátima: He was ordered from the courtroom, then led back five minutes later. Shortly afterward he was released from his cage and led to a chair before Santiapichi, where he was to testify about receiving the 9-mm Browning. Once again Agca abruptly shouted, “We are here to ascertain the truth of the facts on the attempt on the life of the Pope.” Santiapichi admonished him,

saying: “I am running this trial.” Replied Agca: “I am a man completely sane of mind. I am a rational man, rather intelligent.” Finally, he settled down and began to answer questions in a normal voice, but at that point the sound system broke down and the court adjourned.

Defence attorneys for Antonov immediately declared that Agca had hopelessly compromised his credibility. Said Giuseppe Consolo, 38, who leads a team of three lawyers representing the Bulgarians: “We are not at all surprised by the behavior of Agca, a man who for four years has been fooling Italian justice.” But prosecutor Marini was not

concerned. Agca, he said, was merely putting on “a show for reporters” and would prove to be quite convincing “when he speaks of facts.”

But the following day Agca began by asking for the court’s indulgence and

then said that he wanted to discuss a subject not raised during the long course of Judge Martella’s investigation. Santiapichi gave him permission to speak, and Agca, again adopting the low guttural inflection similar to the Pope’s voice when he speaks Italian, declared: “The assassination attempt against the Pope is linked to the third secret of the Madonna of Fátima (page 30). In the name of God Almighty, I announce the end of the world. I am Jesus Christ

reincarnated in this generation. The entire world will be destroyed. The years of the world are counted.”

While Santiapichi, Marini and two rows of court officials and black-robed lawyers stared at him, Agca, a Sunni Moslem, continued: “You can call me crazy because of this information, but meditate and think. The Pope came to my cell. I spoke with the Pope. I told the Pope this. I have spoken with the invisible God. God gave me the vision of the crucifixion, the resurrection, the ascension. The Pope asked me ‘When?’ He did not say to me, ‘You are crazy.’ He asked me ‘When?’ And when the Pope left me he defined our visit as excellent, marvel-

lous. The Vatican is the brain of human civilization, men who are more intelligent than you others. Why was this talk excellent, marvellous? No. I speak the absolute truth. I saw a vision. I saw it all. This world has its years counted. In

this generation the world will be destroyed. Neither the Soviets nor the Americans will be able to avoid anything.” Grateful: It was a dramatic speech, but Agca had not finished. Pausing only briefly, he then continued: “I ask the Vatican once again to reveal the third secret of Fátima. That is all. I am very grateful to you all for this possibility. I am extremely grateful to Italian democracy. I have transmitted a divine message of eternal Almighty God.” Santiapi-

chi looked at Agca, then declared quietly: “This court does not concern itself with absolute truths, but with charges. Let us get back to the point, to the pistol. Where did it come from?” But Agca said he could not answer because “I am waiting for an answer from the Vatican. If it is silent, I will speak tomorrow. If it contradicts me, I will not be able to cooperate.” The judge granted Agca a brief recess, then summoned him back to the stand. But Agca was adamant. “Today,” he said, “I cannot speak.”

The “third secret of Fátima” that Agca asked the Vatican to disclose referred to the last of three messages supposedly delivered by the Virgin

Mary when she appeared in a 1917 vision which three Portuguese children claimed to have seen in their home village of Fátima. The first two secrets revealed a vision of hell and the threat posed to Catholicism by communism. The third, later sent to the Vatican, has never been disclosed. In 1960 Pope John XXIII said it contained nothing that the devout could not find in the New Testament Book of Revelation.

John Paul first forgave Agca for the assassination attempt in 1981 while he was still in hospital recovering from his wounds. Then, on Dec. 27, 1983, John Paul paid a surprise visit to Agca’s cell in Rebibbia Prison and spent 20 minutes talking privately with his assailant. When he emerged from their conversation, during which he again pardoned

the Turk, the Pope declared, “I have met with a brother of ours in whom I have total trust.” A picture of a smiling John Paul shaking hands and warmly clasping the shoulder of an unshaven Agca appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world.

Discreet: After Agca’s second day in court last week, defence counsel Consolo scoffed, “I am glad that finally everybody has been able to realize from what a source comes the accusation against the Bulgarians.” But Marini remained unruffled. Said the prosecutor: “What interests us are the statements Agca made during the investigation. The strange things he says do not increase or

diminish the weight of the proofs gathered so far.”

Asked about Agca’s remarks—and his challenge on the “third secret of Fátima”—official Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro responded with a terse “No comment.” Indeed, the church appeared determined to maintain discreet silence about the case. During the trial’s first three days neither L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, nor Vatican Radio mentioned it. Similarly, the Vatican refused to comment on a May 24 conversation—recorded on film and screened on Italian television—during which the Pope discussed the impending trial during an audience he granted a Bulgarian delegation. When Bulgarian Vice-President Georgi Dzagarov declared that none of his country-

men was involved in any murder plot, the Pope was heard to reply, “Every day I pray for a good solution of this affair, so that it should not weigh on the name of a Slavic country and people.”

Clearly, the Vatican wants to avoid further straining its already uneasy relations with the Communist bloc, where 53 million Catholics practise their religion under the disapproving eyes of state officials. Should the court ultimately conclude that Bulgarian officials were involved in an assassination plot, with the probable complicity of Moscow, the consequences for Catholic priests and parishioners within the Soviet bloc could be grave. Perhaps in anticipation

of such a finding, the church insisted that the trial was a matter pertaining to the Italian state, not the Holy See. Even the Italian government, which has been actively seeking to improve its relations with the Soviet Union, seemed anxious not to offend Moscow. The day after the trial opened, Prime Minister Bettino Craxi travelled to the Soviet capital for talks on a wide range of topics, including the East-West deadlock on reducing nuclear weapons.

Sombre: For his part, the Pope continued his policy of striving to reinforce the church in Communistand Marxistcontrolled countries. John Paul included two Poles and a Czechoslovak, as well as an Ethiopian and a Nicaraguan, in the list of 28 men he elevated to the rank of cardinal in an open-air ceremony on

Odyssey of an assassin

1) ISTANBUL, Feb. 1,1979: Mehmet Ali Agca murders Turkish editor. Arrested June 25, he escapes from prison Nov. 23.

2) ERZURUM, Turkey, Feb. 1, 1980: Enters Iran via Ankara and home town of Malatya. Returns to Turkey in spring, then departs for Bulgaria. Convicted April 28 in absentia in editor’s slaying.

3) SOFIA, Bulgaria, July: Agca meets Turk suspected of providing forged passport. In August travels to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, apparently en route to Western Europe.

4) KEMPTEN, West Germany, Nov. 25: Agca suspected of murdering German grocer.

5) TUNIS, Tunisia, Nov. 30: Arrives, possibly from West Germany, travels to Hammamet. May have visited Libya.

6) PALERMO, Sicily, Dec. 13: Arrives from Tunisia. Late in December he travels to Rome, staying in rooming houses.

7) MILAN, Italy, Feb. 4, 1981: Agca eludes arrest after being spotted in café. Returns to Rome later.

8) PERUGIA, Italy, April 8: Arrives from Rome, registers as language student. Returns

to Rome April 12. About April 15, he leaves for Austria and Switzerland, returning April 18 to Genoa.

9) GENOA, Italy April 19-20: Spends two days in city, returning to Rome April 20, where he leaves pistol in main rail station. Books tour to Majorca, Spain, through travel agency.

10) MAJORCA, Spain, April 25-May 9: In Majorca, flies back to Milan May 9, takes train to Rome.

11) ROME, May 9-13: Stays two days in youth hostel, then in rooming house. On May 13 the Pope is shot, and Agca is captured.

May 25. Among those who received the red biretta as princes of the church: Andrzej Maria Deskur, a native of Poland and one of the Pope’s oldest friends, and two Canadians, Edouard Gagnon and Louis-Albert Vachon of Quebec. In his sombre homily, delivered in St. Peter’s Square, the Pope referred directly to the persecution of the church in some countries, advising the new cardinals that they “must have no illusions about the way they will be received.”

Clever: The Vatican was silent on Agca’s courtroom statements, but other observers close to the case were puzzled by his motives. Among them was Romebased American journalist Claire Sterling, who first disclosed the

Bulgarian Connection and whose 1983 book, The Time of the Assassins, provided a detailed account of her investigation of the attempt on the Pope’s life. Said Sterling: “He must have a plan.” One possibility, put forward by several Italian newspapers: Agca’s ranting may have been an obscure signal to still undisclosed accomplices. Other observers said that Agca was simply a clever megalomaniac intent on exploiting his position in the judicial limelight.

In her book, based in part on documents that Martella used in his own investigation, Sterling outlined what may well prove to be a rough blueprint of the prosecution’s case. Relying heavily on Agca’s testimony, augmented by other witnesses, Marini is expected to try to show that Bulgarian officials —having decided to arrange the Pope’s assassination—approached Bekir Celenk, a Turkish underworld leader and arms smuggler with close ties to Sofia. The prosecution will contend that Celenk then recruited Agca and Celik from the Grey Wolves. Indeed, Agca may have unwittingly applied for the assignment. The day after he escaped from prison in Turkey, Agca wrote a letter to the newspaper Milliyet, in which he vowed to kill John Paul, whom he de-

scribed as “the Commander of the Crusades ... disguised as a religious leader.”

According to Italian authorities, Agca took a guerrilla training program at a Palestinian camp near Beirut in 1977 before returning to Turkey and becoming active in the Grey Wolves, then the enforcement arm of the extreme rightwing National Action Party. The Grey Wolves remain active in Europe, particularly in West Germany, where roughly two million Turks are living as so-called “guest workers.”

Indeed, on the eve of the trial Dutch border police arrested a Turkish gunman in the city of Venlo. The man, travelling under a false French passport, was carrying a Browning pistol

bearing the serial number of the same group from which Agca’s weapon had been taken—sparking speculation that the Turk was Oral Celik. But Dutch authorities later said that the suspect, while probably a Grey Wolf, was not Celik.

Agca, a native of the Turkish city of Malatya (population 300,000), where his mother, sister and brother still live modestly, told Italian investigators that he spent nearly two months in the Bulgarian capital in 1980, staying in the

finest hotel, before moving into Western Europe on a $50,000 grand tour, during which he lived in deluxe hotels and resorts. As an Italian investigator told Sterling,

“He travelled more like a man who had won a lottery than like a tourist trying to see the world.”

Rome was the final stop on the tour.

Lolita: The connection between the Turkish underworld and both leftwing and right-wing Turkish terrorists has been well established.

During the five years before the Turkish army seized power in 1980, terrorist attacks claimed roughly 5,000 lives. Although Turkish military authorities arrested and executed hundreds of suspects, hundreds more escaped—often by fleeing into neighboring Bulgaria. According to Italian prosecutors, Celenk was an arms dealer who often did business in Sofia and indulged his taste for luxury by touring Istanbul’s nightclubs in a custom-built Mercedes. His wife, Nilufer Kocyigit, was known as the “Turkish Lolita” because she began her acting career at 15 by appearing in softcore pornographic films. Since his indictment Celenk has remained in Sofia, where he was briefly under house arrest

and where his wife occasionally visits him from Turkey.

Riddles: In January, 1984, Celenk broke his long silence on Agca’s allegations. He told the French newspaper Le Monde: “I am the victim of the calumnies of a liar, Ali Agca. I have nothing to do with this dirty business.” He added that he was willing to travel to Rome to stand trial but he said that the Bulgarians had seized his passport and refused to allow him to leave.

Whether the words that emerge from

the white caged prisoners in the Foro Italico in the weeks and months ahead are calumnies, secret codes or madness, the long quest for the truth about the plot to kill the Pope is already shrouded in riddles. But the effort to penetrate the mystery is certain to reverberate far beyond the Roman court into the worlds of politics and international intrigue.

Sari Gilbert

Peter Lewis

David North