When an assassin tried to kill a Pope in Manila
Security is understandably a key concern in the upcoming visit of Pope Francis.
There are, as the tragedy in Paris demonstrates, zealots ready and willing to commit the most heinous crimes for extremist causes.
And Pope Francis is, after all, an unusual Vatican leader, one who is more open-minded that his predecessors and who has taken surprisingly bold, controversial and progressive positions on a range of issues.
Then there’s this sad, curious fact: It was in Manila that the first papal assassination attempt in modern history took place.
The attempt on the life of Pope Paul VI was a near-tragic, if bizarre, episode in Vatican and Philippine history, one that featured an unusual cast of characters, from a mentally disturbed Bolivian painter, an incognito Filipino reporter who helped foil his dastardly plan and a future dictator who tried to claim credit for saving the life of the leader of the Catholic church.
At the center of it all was Pope Paul VI, the first Vatican leader to visit the Philippines.
On November 27, 1970, he arrived in Manila as part of an Asian tour. He was being welcomed at the airport by Philippine officials, led by then President Ferdinand Marcos, when a man dressed in a black priest’s garb lunged at him with a knife.
“Death to superstition!” he yelled, according to a UPI report of the incident.
The attacker, a 35-year-old Bolivian expat painter named Benjamin Mendoza, was quickly subdued by other people who were with the Pope.
According to press reports, it was the Pope’s personal secretary Pasquale Macchi who pushed the assassin to the ground. An Italian video clip now posted on YouTube shows the attack at the airport, and the assailant being dragged away.
A Filipino reporter with the Manila Chronicle, Alex Allan, also later told ABS CBN that he helped subdue killer-dressed-as-a-priest after he fell.
Allan himself was an impostor that day. Failing to obtain proper media credentials to cover the Pope’s arrival, he managed to get close to the action by dressing up as a police officer, with the blessings of a police general who agreed to let him pretend to be his aide, according to the ABS CBN report.
Of course, that turned out to be a fortuitous twist in an international event where security suffered serious lapses.
But then came another twist. As he prepared to file a report on what happened, Allan was told by the police general who made it possible for him to have a ringside view of the incident that he is expected to present the “official version” of the assassination attempt.
The general, he told ABS-CBN, told him: ‘Alex, hindi tayo ang nag-save kay Pope, ha? It was Marcos who blocked him and karate-chopped him. And it was Imelda who picked up the knife.’” The UPI also reported that Mendoza, the Bolivian attacker, later signed a statement claiming it was Marcos who stopped him.
That fairy tale, meant to raise the profile of the Philippine leader who would eventually be known as one of the most ruthless liars in Philippine history, never really gained credence.
In fact, the assassination attempt itself ended up being downplayed in the media coverage. That was largely because Pope Paul VI himself never talked about the attack, and the Vatican denied that he was wounded in the assassination attempt.
It was only in 1978 after Pope Paul’s death that the Vatican acknowledged that he was injured in the Manila incident.
Macchi himself described Pope Paul VI’s unexpected, even moving, reaction just moments after he was nearly killed.
“If you ask me what the Pope’s most beautiful smile was, it came during the attempt on his life in Manila,” Macchi told UPI. “After I pushed back the attacker, who wounded Paul in the chest, fortunately not lethally, I turned to face the Pope.”
“I will never forget his sweet smile, he continued. “And when he met my eyes it was as if he was somehow chastising me for the violence with which I pulled the assailant away to the police. It was as if he was enjoying a moment of inspired joy.”
Pope Paul’s attacker, Mendoza, was held in Bilibid Prison before being released and then deported to Bolivia.
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