THE Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has admitted that the visit of Pope Francis in January will be fraught with security concerns and that an assassination attempt is always a possibility.
“We cannot ignore that somebody might be interested [in killing the pope]or sow chaos,” AFP Public Affairs Office chief Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc said on Thursday.
Cabunoc said that as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope, who will be in the Philippines from January 15 to 19, is more than just a very important person (VIP) and his security and safety remains a “big challenge” to authorities.
“That is why we are appealing to the public to help us in monitoring and information sharing because it is the responsibility of everybody. We must help each other because the Pope’s coming visit is a great honor to our country,” he said.
Cabunoc said there are no specific reports of threats against the Pope, but that does not mean the military is not letting its guard down.
AFP chief Gen. Gregorio Catapang has ordered the Filipino peacekeepers who were assigned to the Golan Heights to form part of the pope’s security ring.
Catapang said the peacekeepers’ exposure and experience in Golan will be an asset during the Pope’s visit.
A military intelligence source has said that even if the AFP is not the lead agency in the security preparations, “we should be ready if the President taps us. So all information, all intelligence services of the AFP are ready because if the President taps the [AFP] chief of staff we have to answer the call.”
The source, who requested not to be identified for lack of authority to speak, said it would be embarrassing for the Philippine government if something happened to the Pope while he is in the country.
In 1995, there was a plot to kill Pope John Paul II when he visited the country.
“Oplan Bojinka” was a plot hatched by al-Qaeda operatives Ramzi Yousef and Kahlid Shaikh Mohammed to blow up 12 airlines and to assassinate John Paul.
The plan was disrupted after a fire broke out at the apartment along Quirino Avenue in Malate, Manila, where Yousef and Mohammed were preparing explosive devices.
The al-Qaeda, founded by Osama Bin Laden, supports the Asian-based terrorist cell Jemaah Islamiya, which has links with the terrorist Abu Sayyaf.
The jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has threatened to kill the pontiff during one of his trips overseas.
In a media briefing on Thursday, Undersecretary for Media Relations Anthony Jess Yu said the government will not take the threats on Pope Francis lightly.
Yu said the AFP, Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Presidential Security Group (PSG) have been alerted about the threats.
He said the Catholic Church was coordinating with law enforcement agencies in determining the number of enforcers to be deployed at the venues where the pope will attend a public gathering.
“We will have sequence and coordination meetings before we conduct another meeting together with the Church regarding that matter,” Yu said.
Pope Francis will be going to Tacloban City on January 17 and dine with some victims of Typhoon Yolanda and the survivors of the 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Bohol.
Former Ambassador to Israel Mariano Paynor appealed to the public not to be overeager in trying to get near the Pope during his public Masses.
On January 18, the Pope will meet with religious leaders at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) and then mingle with students.
On the afternoon of the same day, he will say Mass at the Rizal Park in Manila.
Paynor said the people can still feel the presence of the pontiff even if they are not able to touch him.
Tacloban police chief Sr. Supt. Domingo Cabillan said that up to 5,000 policemen might reinforce the 2,000 police officers assigned to the papal visit.
Cabillan said they are also training civilian volunteers from different parishes, members of peace organizations and college students to be “force multipliers” in providing security for the pope.
“We do not leave this to the PNP alone. Even media and the public could help. They are the force multipliers who can help secure our Pope especially during the motorcade from the airport to Palo which is more or less 12 kilometers [from Tacloban]if we will secure both sides of the road,” he said.