April 13, 2008 / 11:26 AM / 12 years ago

Pope brings peace message to US amid Qaeda threats

By Randall Mikkelsen

WASHINGTON, April 13 (Reuters) - Pope Benedict will carry a message of peace during a six-day U.S. visit beginning on Tuesday, but Osama bin Laden’s recent condemnations of the Roman Catholic leader have put security officials on edge.

U.S. intelligence authorities and Church officials say there are no specific, credible threats surrounding the first American papal visit since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

But they are mindful that al Qaeda’s leader in March accused Benedict taking part in a "new crusade" against Muslims, which has raised already-high security worries. Security for the pontiff’s visit to Washington and New York is tighter than previous papal trips, officials said.

Other Islamist militants previously threatened Benedict over his quotation in 2006 of a medieval text condemning Islam’s Prophet Mohammed.

The last papal visit to the United States, by Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul, was in 1999.

"We have to take what al Qaeda leaders say seriously. It’s not just rhetoric," said Charles Allen, U.S. undersecretary of Homeland Security for Intelligence and Analysis.

He told reporters an assessment by Homeland Security and the FBI found "no direct threat to the pope" and security officials said bin Laden’s latest message did not alter their plans. But they plan an all-out protection effort overseen by the U.S. Secret Service.

The agency declined to specify security measures. New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said they would include thousands of police on the streets, scuba divers in the East River, radiation detectors and flight restrictions.

"There was certainly a very robust plan when the previous pope visited New York. I would venture to say that there is perhaps a little more now," Kelly said. "This is a post-9/11 event, and we have to factor in other considerations."

Security is so tight that no Sikh can attend a meeting between the pope and leaders of other religions because he would not be allowed to wear the "kirpan" ceremonial dagger all men baptized in the faith must wear.


Peace in the Middle East and elsewhere will be the main theme of Benedict’s message, capped by a speech to the United Nations on Friday, said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The German-born pontiff will also meet in Washington with Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews and representatives of other religions at Catholic University on Thursday. He plans to visit a New York synagogue on Friday a day before the start of Passover.

"In our world people are looking to the religious bodies to work together to bring people together," Walsh said. "The pope is especially concerned about peace in the Middle East."

Benedict has frequently cited the suffering of Iraqis and called for an end to the war. In his Easter Mass he decried what he called assaults on human dignity in Darfur, Somalia, the Holy Land, Iraq, Lebanon and Tibet.

Benedict’s U.N. speech will attack the notion that "might is right," said the papal envoy, Archbishop Celestino Migliore.

U.S. President George W. Bush will greet Benedict at Andrews Air Force Base on Tuesday, and host him at the White House on Wednesday, Benedict’s 81st birthday.

Benedict is expected to recognize American diversity and deliver messages of hope in Masses at Nationals Park in Washington and Yankee Stadium in New York, to worshipers who obtained tickets from their local churches.

During the visit, he also is expected to address the scandal of priests sexually abusing youths that erupted in 2002 and still tarnishes the Church’s moral authority.

Public opportunities to see the pope include his short trips in the "popemobile" equipped with bulletproof glass. He is scheduled to pray at the Ground Zero, the New York site of the World Trade Center towers that fell on Sept. 11, 2001.

Benedict’s U.S. visit is a tempting symbolic target for al Qaeda, but there are enormous obstacles to a successful attack because of the elaborate and sophisticated protections he will be given, said terrorism expert Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Former Secret Service Agent Ronald Williams, who helped protect John Paul during U.S. visits in 1979 and 1987, said concerns were different then — officials prepared against a potential deranged attacker or a surge of adoring crowds.

"Today’s threat, it’s much more sophisticated and organized," said Williams, who now heads security firm Talon Executive Services in California. (Additional reporting by Edith Honan in New York; editing by Alan Elsner)

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