Pope Francis’ Visit to Philippines Creates Mass of Security Concerns

Pope’s Mass in Manila Expected to Attract Up to Six Million People

 

How does one manage what could be among the largest gatherings of Christian believers ever assembled? Very carefully, Philippines officials and security experts say.

With as many as six million devotees expected to attend an open-air Mass in the center of Manila during Pope Francis ’ visit to the country, it could be one of the biggest Roman Catholic events ever held, rivaling Pope St. John Paul II ’s Mass in the same city in 1995. That gathering drew an estimated five million people.

The scale of Sunday’s centerpiece event, as well as a closely watched side-trip to Tacloban, the city devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, will be a test of the Philippines’ ability to protect not just the pontiff, but also the hordes of people expected to throng areas where he is scheduled to appear.

Last Friday, two people were killed in a stampede at a boisterous religious procession in Manila, which attracted about one million people, many of whom jostled to touch a centuries-old statue of Jesus Christ that is reputed to hold mystical powers.

It is not just the large crowds that are a concern. The Philippines, some 80% of whose 100 million people are Catholic, is also home to a long-running insurgency in Muslim-dominated areas in the south of the country, and al Qaeda-linked terrorists, such as the Abu Sayyaf group, have persistently attempted to connect the insurgency in the Mindanao region to a broader Islamist movement.

They have achieved some limited success in this. The Philippines once served as an operations base for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the Sept. 11, attacks on the U.S. in 2001, and Ramzi Yousef, who bombed the basement of the World Trade Center in 1993.

In 1995, when St. John Paul II was visiting Manila to celebrate World Youth Day, the two men and an accomplice, Abdul Hakim Murad, rented an apartment on the pope’s planned route as part of an assassination plan, U.S. and other security officials say. The plot was abandoned after police responded to a small fire at the apartment and found bomb-making materials along with a laptop computer that contained details of another plan called “Operation Bojinka.” It proposed the bombing of 11 U.S. passenger jets over the Pacific Ocean, and crashing another plane into the Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters in Langley, Va.

More recently, Philippines-based militants, including Abu Sayyaf, have attempted to align themselves with Islamic State forces operating in Syria and Iraq, at one point swearing loyalty to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, much as they did to al Qaeda previously.

However, after years of U.S. military support, the Philippine military has killed or captured many of Abu Sayyaf’s most-effective commanders.

Matt Williams, of Pacific Strategies & Assessments, a Manila-based security and risk consultancy, said the high-profile nature of Pope Francis’ visit “presents an attractive target for both coordinated and lone-wolf style attacks.”

The bigger security threat is how to manage the crowds, he said.

“Violent crowd movements, such as mass pushing, can quickly reach levels that are difficult to contain and result in a domino effect,” Mr. Williams said.

Pope-mania has already been aroused in Manila, with all manner of souvenirs on sale, from cookies, coffee mugs and T-shirts to 12-inch-high plush dolls fashioned in Pope Francis’ likeness. The night before the big Mass on Sunday, a theater company will put on “Pope Francis: the Musical” at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, with a real priest taking on the role of the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as the pope used to be known.

As the anticipation for the papal visit builds, there are concerns that all this zeal could become a real hazard.

Philippine police say they aim to deploy 25,000 officers to retain order, while thousands of troops and other security officials will help secure key sites such as Tacloban’s airport and Rizal Park, the sprawling venue in the center of Manila that will host Sunday’s mass.

Undercover agents from the Swiss Guard—the Vatican’s own security team—will also be in the crowd. Metro Manila’s government, meanwhile, has recommended that traffic police use adult diapers to help keep their minds on the job. People planning to attend Sunday’s mass in Manila have been asked to leave their backpacks at home, and use only transparent containers for food or water.

One specific challenge is how to cope with this particular pontiff’s disdain for being cooped up inside bulletproofed “popemobiles”, as his predecessors tended to do after an attempt on the life of St. John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square in 1981. Another pontiff, Pope Paul VI, also avoided a knife attack in Manila in 1970.

Instead, Pope Francis has chosen to travel around in open-air vehicles, one of which is modeled on the Philippines’ iconic jeepneys—American World War II-style jeeps that enterprising Filipinos stretched out to become utility or passenger vehicles. Worse, from a security standpoint, is Pope Francis habit of spontaneously walking out into the crowds that flock to wish him well, and authorities have asked ordinary Filipinos to be on their guard.

As President Benigno Aquino III said in a televised address to the nation on Monday, “The pope’s visit is a great honor for our country…but it is also a big challenge.”

 

By JAMES HOOKWAY and CRIS LARANO of wsj.com

 

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