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Mehmet Ali Agca, Pope John Paul II's Would-Be Assassin

Convicted Murderer, Confessed Terrorist, A Free Man in 2010

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Ever the reactionary organ of Middle America, Time attempted to upstage one of the Pope's noblest acts with the stupidest question in 1983.

Twenty-nine years ago, Mehmet Ali Agca drilled two bullets into Pope John Paul II. Today, Agca, whom the pope forgave less than two years after surviving the assassination attempt, is a free man. He didn't walk out of an Italian prison. Agca did that 10 years ago, when then-Italian President Carlo Ciampi pardoned him. As gaunt as always but grayer, and looking more like a worn out American television network anchor than an assassin, he walked out of a Turkish prison, where he was serving out a murder sentence for the killing of a Turkish newspaper editor in 1979.

And he did so in characteristic Agca style, proclaiming himself "The Christ eternal" and declaring that "All the world will be destroyed in this century. Every human being will die in this century."

He is at least half right: Every human being alive today will, Fidel Castro and a few other lucky old-timers aside, be dead by century's end. And based on the way the global warming talks went in Copenhagen, he may be right about the world, too. But Turkish authorities may want to rethink his induction into the Turkish military. After prison he was taken to a military hospital to be assessed for military service, compulsory even for the aged and deluded, should they have escaped induction when they were younger. (Agca is more likely to land a book deal and maybe a guest-starring appearance on "Valley of the Wolves.")

Why Did He Do It?

There's no doubt over Agca's violent past. But to this day there's reasonable doubt over his motive for taking shots at John Paul.

John Paul II, anyway, had no doubts what and who was behind Agca's assassination attempt on May 13, 1981, as the pope was being trundled through St. Peter's Square before 20,000 people. "We talked for a long time," the Pope wrote in his memoir of his meeting and forgiving Ali Agca at Rebibbia prison on Christmas in 1983. "Ali Agca is, as everyone says, a professional assassin. Which means that the assassination was not his initiative, that someone else thought of it, someone else gave the order."

The pope had in mind something Soviet: the assassination attempt took place in the midst of the Polish uprising led by Solidarity, the labor union, itself inspired and invigorated in large part by the Polish pope's visit to his homeland in 1979. Killing the pope would have been a way of robbing Solidarity of its momentum, which threatened the foundations of the Soviet Bloc. Seven months after the failed assassination, martial law was imposed on Poland. Too late: the fall of the Soviet Union was in progress, and the pope had more to do with it than, say, Ronald Reagan. Whoever set Mehmet Ali Agca loose on the pope knew that John Paul was no mere pontiff.

The Soviet Connection

Italy's Mitrokhin Commission, established in 2002, concluded that Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev ordered the Bulgarian and East German secret agencies to assassinate John Paul. The commission's work was controversial, but its inquiry found that Agca was trained by the KGB in
Yemen (a country that recurrently finds itself implicated in terrorism's reach. "We are sure that the secret services of the former Soviet Union have planned the attack against the pope," Senator Paolo Guzzanti, who led the commission, told New Europe Radio.

Agca himself never seemed to get his story straight. He first said he acted alone. Then he said he said he was working for Palestinians. Then he blamed the KGB and the Bulgarian secret services.

Agca's past was richly violent. He was born in 1958 in Turkey. He was in gangs by adolescence, then a smuggler between Turkey and Bulgarian, then, according to the BBC, a terrorist in training in Syria in the late 1970s. Syria was a Soviet client. As a member of the Grey Wolves, an ultra-nationalist Turkish group, Agca murdered Abdi İpekçi in February 1979. İpekçi was the editor-in-chief of Milliyet, a Turkish daily, and a human rights advocate.

Agca was caught, tried and sentenced to prison. He escaped within months--until he lowered his gun after shooting the pope.

The Shooting in St. Peter's Square

He must have known that it isn't quite possible to get away from a throng of 20,000 pope fans, not even--especially not--in Vatican City, what with its legendary guards.

As The New York Times described it at the time,

The attack occurred as the Pope, dressed in white, was shaking hands and lifting small children in his arms while being driven around the square. Suddenly, as he reached a point just outside the Vatican's bronze gate, there was a burst of gunfire.

One hand rising to his face and blood staining his garments, the Pope faltered and fell into the arms of his Polish secretary, the Rev. Stanislaw Dziwisz, and his personal servant, Angelo Gugel, who were in the car with him.

An American and a Jamaican tourist were also wounded by two of the four bullets Agca fired. "The gunman, who the police said was armed with a 9-millimeter Browning automatic," Henry Tanner's dispatch went on, "was set upon in the square by bystanders, who knocked the pistol out of his hand. He was then arrested, taken away by police car and later identified as Mehmet Ali Agca, 23. Despite reports that another man had been seen fleeing from the square, the police said they were convinced that the gunman had acted alone."

Italian police said that Agca had in his pocket several notes in handwritten Turkish, one of them saying, "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 El Salvador and Afghanistan"--characteristic Agca hodgepodge, which would continue in the years of his incarceration. More recently, he volunteered, while in jail, to go to Afghanistan and kill Osama bin Laden. Turkish authorities inexplicably denied him the chance, though he is the only assassin with a proven record of getting near his desired targets. Now that he's free, who knows. He may yet try.

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