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May 13, 2022

On May 13, 1981: Pope John Paul II Was Shot Four Times by a Gunman in St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City

The first attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II took place on Wednesday, 13 May 1981, in St. Peter’s Square at Vatican City. The Pope was shot and wounded by Mehmet Ali Ağca while he was entering the square. The Pope was struck four times, and suffered severe blood loss. Ağca was apprehended immediately, and later sentenced to life in prison by an Italian court. The Pope later forgave Ağca for the assassination attempt. He was pardoned by Italian president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi at the Pope’s request and was deported to Turkey in June 2000.

The moment Mehmet Ali Ağca took aim at the Pope from within the crowd.

The Pope had been greeting pilgrims in Vatican City when he was struck by four bullets.

In 1979 The New York Times reported that Agca, whom it called “the self-confessed killer of an Istanbul newspaperman,” had described the Pope as “the masked leader of the crusades” and threatened to shoot him if he did not cancel his planned visit to Turkey, which went ahead in late November 1979. The paper also said (on November 28, 1979) that the killing would be in revenge for the then still ongoing attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which had begun on November 20, and which he blamed on the United States or Israel.

Beginning in August 1980, Ağca, under the alias of Vilperi, began criss-crossing the Mediterranean region, changing passports and identities, perhaps to hide his point of origin in Sofia, Bulgaria. He entered Rome on May 10, 1981, coming by train from Milan. According to Ağca’s later testimony, he met with three accomplices in Rome, one a fellow Turk and two Bulgarians, with the operation being commanded by Zilo Vassilev, the Bulgarian military attaché in Italy. He said that he was assigned this mission by Turkish mafioso Bekir Çelenk in Bulgaria. According to Ağca, the plan was for him and the back-up gunman Oral Çelik to open fire on the pope in St. Peter’s Square and escape to the Bulgarian embassy under the cover of the panic generated by a small explosion.

Pope John Paul II collapsed in the papal Jeep after being shot in Saint Peter’s Square in Rome on May 13, 1981.

The Pope photographed moments after being shot by Ali Ağca.

This photo shows Pope John Paul II sitting in his bed at the Policlinico Gemelli hospital in Rome on May 19, 1981, six days after he was wounded in St. Peter’s Square.

On May 13, they sat in the square, writing postcards and waiting for the Pope to arrive. When the Pope passed through a crowd of supporters, Ağca fired four shots at 17:17 with a 9mm Browning Hi-Power semi-automatic pistol, and critically wounded him. He fled the scene as the crowd was in shock and disposed of the pistol by throwing it under a truck, but was grabbed by Vatican security chief Camillo Cibin, a nun, and several spectators who prevented him from firing more shots or escaping, and he was arrested. All four bullets hit John Paul II; two of them lodged in his lower intestine while the other two hit his left index finger and right arm and also injured two bystanders: Ann Odre, of Buffalo, New York, was struck in the chest, and Rose Hall was slightly wounded in the arm. The Pope was immediately rushed to the hospital while the authorities combed the site for evidence. Çelik panicked and fled without setting off his bomb or opening fire.

Ağca was sentenced in July 1981 to life imprisonment for the assassination attempt, but was pardoned by Italian president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi in June 2000 at the Pope’s request. He was then extradited to Turkey, where he was imprisoned for the 1979 murder of left-wing journalist Abdi İpekçi and two bank raids carried out in the 1970s. Despite a plea for early release in November 2004, a Turkish court announced that he would not be eligible for release until 2010. Nonetheless he was released on parole on January 12, 2006. However, on January 20, 2006, the Turkish Supreme Court ruled that his time served in Italy could not be deducted from his Turkish sentence and he was returned to jail. Ağca was released from prison on January 18, 2010, after almost 29 years behind bars.

In a Dec. 1983 file photo provided by Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Pope John Paul II meets Mehmet Ali Ağca, in Ağca’s prison cell in Rome.

The Pope visited Ağca while he was in jail.

Following the shooting, Pope John Paul II asked people to “pray for my brother [Ağca] ... whom I have sincerely forgiven.” In 1983, he and Ağca met and spoke privately at Rome’s Rebibbia Prison, where Ağca was being held. Ağca reportedly kissed the Pope’s ring at the conclusion of their visit; some mistakenly thought the Pope was hearing Ağca’s confession. The Pope was also in touch with Ağca’s family over the years, meeting his mother in 1987 and his brother, Muezzin Ağca, a decade later.

Although Ağca was quoted as saying that “to me [the Pope] was the incarnation of all that is capitalism,” and attempted to murder him, Ağca developed a friendship with the pontiff. In early February 2005, during the Pope’s illness, Ağca sent a letter to the Pope wishing him well.

Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz (left) looks at the cassock Pope John Paul II was wearing when he was shot in 1981, at the Saint John Paul II Sanctuary in Cracow, Poland, on May 13, 2015, the 34th anniversary of the assassination attempt.

The Fiat Popemobile in which Pope John Paul II was riding at the time of the attempted assassination. This vehicle is now in the Vatican Museums.

The Browning handgun used by Mehmet Ali Ağca to shoot the pope at close range.


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