Italy, Vatican on High Alert After ISIS Threat

Pope Francis waves to people from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square during the Angelus noon prayer at the Vatican on Feb. 22. (Riccardo De Luca, AP)
Pope Francis waves to people from his studio window overlooking St. Peter’s Square during the Angelus noon prayer at the Vatican on Feb. 22. (Riccardo De Luca, AP)

The Italian government is on high alert after threats from the Islamic State called Italy “the nation signed with the blood of the cross.” And the country would probably need help to confront the militant group.

Italy is one of a handful of major Western counties that has not been victim of a large-scale terror assault since the Sept. 11 attacks in the USA. The Vatican — the de facto seat of worldwide Christianity — is in Rome, so the city could be a target.

Italian officials fear extremists could enter the country amid the growing tide of refugees arriving by boat from North Africa. About 500 extra troops have been stationed to guard symbolic targets in Rome and monitor the streets of the capital for suspicious activity.

The video threat, released with images of 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt who were beheaded this month, warned that Islamic State forces were “south of Rome,” in Libya. At its closest point, Libya is little more than 100 miles from the Italian islands of Sicily and Sardinia.

This comes four months after the Islamic State’s propaganda magazine Dabiq ran a cover photo of the militant group’s flag flying above the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican with the headline: “The failed crusade.”

“The risks are real,” said Sabrina Magris, president of the International University School of Rome and Florence, the only European institution that prepares negotiators for hostage and terror threats. “The goal may be an actual attack of some kind or simply using threats to create an atmosphere of fear. But the risks shouldn’t be underestimated.”

The Vatican has made no official comment about being a potential target for the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, or other extremist groups, and Pope Francis resists many security measures, delving into crowds whenever possible.

At Sunday’s Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, extra security was evident. Police patrolled the area and were stationed around the Vatican’s perimeter.

The people on hand said they didn’t mind.

“It’s a dangerous world, and the pope and the Vatican have a very high profile,” said Karen Phifer, 44, a teacher from Philadelphia spending a year in Italy while on sabbatical. “Every step that can be taken to protect them should be taken.”

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SOURCE: USA Today
Eric J. Lyman

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