On Wednesday 13th May 1981, Mehmet Ali Ağca, a 23 year old Turkish petty criminal cum-bank robber, fired four shots from within the crowds of St. Peter’s Square that echoed throughout Europe. All of the bullets fired that day entered the body of Pope John Paul II; two tore through his lower intestine, one struck and removed a finger on his left hand.
Ağca was apprehended and sentenced to life in prison.
Although the Pope was critically wounded by the attempt, he made a full recovery, and even petitioned the Italian President, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, to pardon Ağca who was eventually extradited to Turkey in 2000.
In Europe today, many see the Cold War through the lense of symbolic events like the demolition of the Berlin Wall, or the Cuban Missile Crisis. But, on the anniversary of the attempted assassination of John Paul II, it is worth considering how crucial this forgotten moment was.
“In Italy today there is a lot of tension because of ISIS, it could happen again to Pope Francis because he is very exposed and loves to be in the crowd.”
The story of the assassination attempt still remains largely unexplained. Conspiracy theories have permanently confused the story, and changed it from a political assassination into a battlefront in the Cold War.
Perhaps the most intriguing theory is referred to simply as the: ‘Bulgarian Connection.” Three Bulgarian men, Sergey Antonov, Todor Ayvazov, and Jelio Vassilev, were accused by Ağca of being Soviet spies and his collaborators in the attack. Russia and Bulgaria have consistently denied being involved ever since.
Only Antonov was charged by the Italian police as the other two men were not in Italy at the time. He was an employee of Balkan Airlines in Rome, and was arrested on the 25th November 1982. However, by the 29th March 1986, after two years in prison, Antonov was released with the judge ruling that there was enough not evidence to convict. Though he returned to Bulgaria a free man, rumours that he conspired to kill the Pope followed him until his death in 2007.
Professor Giuseppe Consolo is the Italian Lawyer who successfully defended Sergey Antonov. Consolo describes his introduction to the case, saying “I had many friends who told me: ‘you are crazy to defend the person involved in the attempt on the Pope,’ and I said, let me understand, first, what happened, and then I’ll tell you if I think he can be guilty or not.”
“Our constitutional law” he explains, “says under article 27, that everybody is innocent until you prove they are guilty,” and “I think my idea was that the Italian justice could not arrest Antonov” because of this article.
Amid the anger and confusion that dominated the time, Consolo’s defence of Antonov is testament to the culture the West was fighting to protect. Ignoring the convictions of most of the public, he saw that the only real evidence against Antonov was the claim made by Aǧca from his prison cell. Not enough for any reasonable court to convict a person.
Previously, Consolo has decried the “stain cast on the Bulgarian people” by what was demonstrably just an “outrageous legal blunder.” “In Italy in 1981,” it was “very tough for Aǧca,” but it was even worse for Antonov when he was arrested “in November 1982 because we had all the media saying everyday ‘he’s guilty, he’s guilty!’”
Nevertheless, many remain convinced that Aǧca was not working alone, and that he was the bottom rung in a ladder that led through the Bulgarian secret services, right up to the KGB.
Rosario Priore, a prominent Italian judge, worked as an investigator in the prosecution of Aǧca. His perspective is quite different. “The three Bulgarian men,” Priore says, “agreed with Aǧca” and wanted John Paul II killed, adding that it was “almost definitely one of the fronts in the Cold war.”
“The accusations made by Aǧca were very confused,” according to Priore. “One day he said something, and the next he changed his mind, he was trying to create chaos.”
While he did not kill the Pope, he did indeed create chaos. Cold war anxieties heightened the threats posed by other nations, especially those that weren’t ‘like us.’ A complex network of drug, weapons, and human trafficking from places like Bulgaria and Turkey made them unpopular with many on both sides of the war.
Consolo, for example, explains “the atmosphere was terrible! Everybody thought that Antonov was guilty and the situation became very tough because Italy was not really against Turkey [and Aǧca], but it was totally against Bulgaria.” Anti Eastern-European sentiments were exacerbated by the homegrown tensions between Italian left and right wing extremists.
Roumiana Ugarchinska is the French author of The Truth About the Assassination Attempt Against John Paul II. 10 years of investigating the collective secret services of Turkey, Russia, Bulgaria, and virtually every European country gives her a real insight into the legacy of conspiracy and terror.
“The secret services deliberately focused the attention on Antonov,” Ugarchinska explains. “Looking through all of the released records of the incident” she says, “they were all involved and they were all focused on spreading misinformation.”
We may never know whether Ağca was working for the KGB, or the fanatical Turkish anti-capitalist group, The Grey Wolves, which he was also part of. He may even have been working alone.
But the most interesting perspective of the story is from the present, looking at the legacy of the four shots that still ring around the capitals of Europe today.
“In Italy today there is a lot of tension because of ISIS” explains Judge Priore when asked if he thinks anything like this could happen again? “Yes,” he says, “especially to Pope Francis, it could happen to Francis because he is very exposed and loves to be in the crowd.”
The Cold war feels quite distant. Our new enemies maybe just make it seem less significant. Nevertheless, the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II is a curious reminder of just how significant 1981 was in creating our present.
Russia is not the opponent it once was, and yet, military and geopolitical infractions appear determined to reforge the iron curtain anew.
Turkey is set to become a part of Europe’s “ever greater union”, with relaxed visa restrictions for the 74 million population, reminding the west of the pivotal role they played as an ally during the cold war. Likewise, the once maligned Bulgaria is cast in a more western model, with a Bulgarian candidate nominated to become the next UN Secretary General and the country set to become a member of the EU Schengen area.
The world is beginning to recast the violence and chaos that were rife throughout the Cold War. As much as the Cold War was a struggle over our way of life versus theirs, the new ‘war on terror’ is, at its core, a culture war. Whereas once the enemy was Russia, now a new cold front has blown in, this time from the Middle East, bringing violent Islamist extremism to the streets of Europe.
It may seem to be giving disproportionate significance to the four bullets fired in St. Peter’s Square on the 13th May 1981. But, the next time we are attacked in the streets of Paris, Rome, or London, if you listen closely, you may still hear them ringing in the ears of Europe.