Got news? That plot to kill pope

So, did you hear the news about the plot in Italy to kill Pope Benedict XVI?

You didn’t? Really?

Actually, it appears that if you are interested in this kind of hard-news story you need to read “Catholic” news sources here in the United States, because it seems that this is “Catholic” news, rather than mainstream news.

Truth is, this is not a new story. In fact, I have been sitting on this “Got news?” item for quote awhile, thinking that I might eventually find a reference to the plot in some form of mainstream American media — even in passing, in a weblog, or something. No dice.

Here is the top of the one mainstream wire service report, from Reuters. It is also interesting to note that this one short May 14 report came more than two weeks after the event in question.

Two Moroccan students deported from Italy last month were suspected of plotting to assassinate Pope Benedict, an Interior Ministry source said. … Mohamed Hlal, 26, and Ahmed Errahmouni, 22, students at the University for Foreigners in the central Italian city of Perugia, had been under surveillance by anti-terrorist police for months before they were expelled on April 29.

“During their inquiry, investigators found evidence suggesting the two (suspects) were plotting an attack on the pope,” said the source.

An interior ministry statement issued at the time of their deportation said they were being expelled under prevention of terrorism laws. Six other foreign students, suspected of contacts with militant Islamic groups, are still under investigation.

OK, I know what you are thinking. It’s just some kids talking about wild plans. Well, the story does include the following interesting details.

News magazine Panorama … reported … that local anti-terrorist police had tapped Hlal’s phone and had raised the alarm when he said he wanted to acquire explosives. The magazine said police discovered a map of Turin at Errahmouni’s house annotated with numbers and circles, ahead of a visit to the northern Italian city by Pope Benedict on May 2 to venerate the Shroud of Turin, which many Catholics believe was Jesus Christ’s burial cloth.

Panorama described Errahmouni as a computer expert who remained in contact with militant groups over the Internet. It said Perugia had become a centre for travelling imams to preach radical Islam.

The magazine report, pieces of which have appeared in Catholic news sites, did contain another interesting quote, care of the actual source in the Italian government:

“Hlal wanted to kill the Vatican’s head of state (the pope), saying he was ready to assassinate him and gain his place in paradise,” Italy’s interior minister Roberto Maroni wrote in the expulsion order authorising Hlal and Ahmed’s deportations. …

Like I said, if you wanted to know more about this plot — which, for some reason, was followed by expulsions, not criminal charges — you needed to turn to websites such as Catholic Online, and the Catholic News Agency. These are the kinds of journalists who have an incentive, I guess, to cover this kind of unimportant, niche-news topic.

Actually, I can think of several logical reasons that might explain why this niche-news story received such small, or nonexistent, play in the American mainstream press.

* Everyone knows that it would be impossible for assassins or angry people to get close enough to a pope to be a real threat to his life.

* These kinds of threats against the pope may now be quite common in Europe. Thus, this is old news.

* Vatican officials were not anxious to respond to questions from journalists about the plot, in part because of their fear of inspiring copycats.

* This story does not appear to be linked to the ongoing scandal of sexual abuse of children and teen-agers by Catholic clergy.

* Journalists are worried about offending Moroccans or contributing to negative stereotypes of young, male Moroccans.

Just thinking out loud, here.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    There are the logical reasons and, of course, the real reason which might also have elements from your list as well.

  • TurretinFan

    I suppose you mean aside from the little lady who has now twice attacked the pope.

  • SDG

    I like Diogenes’ unpacking of #4 above: “If the story involves sexual abuse but it’s not in the Catholic Church, forget it. If it’s about the Catholic Church and it doesn’t involve sexual abuse, no dice. If you can’t fit ‘Vatican’ and ‘sexual abuse’ into the same sentence, you can’t get the sentence printed in the mainstream media.”

  • Perpetua

    I think this is a very inflammatory story because these Muslims seemed to believe they could gain a place in heaven by assassinating the Pope. These raises the obvious questions. Why would they think such a thing? It goes against the claim that Islam is a peaceful religion. Is the Pope under a “Fatwa”? If so, for what?

    When I read the story, I assumed that the Pope was a target for publicly baptizing a convert from Islam to Roman Catholic Christianity. I know the punishment for apostasy from Islam is death. So I was thinking that maybe they were thinking that not only the apostate but also the facilitator of the apostasy should receive that punishment.

  • Perpetua

    Of course, the political arm of Lashkar e Tayiba, the group behind the 2008 Mumbai massacre, did issue a fatwa against the Pope in 2006 for that speech he gave.

    At that time the story was:

    The Lashkar has secret cells in the United Kingdom and France, but there is no confirmed information of any activity in Italy so far. It is likely that the task of executing this fatwa might be entrusted to one of its cells in the UK or France.

  • John D

    I saw a piece today on the FBI file on Jesse Helms ( Most of the file concerns death threats against the late Senator.

    “All senators and congressmen get threats periodically. Most of it’s not serious,” said Jesse Helms Center director John Dodd, who began working as a political consultant for Helms in the early 1980s. “It certainly wasn’t something he talked about much.”

    I remember reading a piece where the Secret Service revealed that President Obama is receiving more threats than is usual for a President.

    The Pope is a fairly prominent individual. Given the above, I would be more surprised if there weren’t any death threats against the Pope. If we can expect that (sadly) people will make threats against prominent politicians and religious figures it stops being newsworthy.

    After all, when was the last time you read about a death threat to the President or the Speaker of the House? According to Mr. Dodd, it’s all par for the course.

  • Dale

    John D wrote:

    Given the above, I would be more surprised if there weren’t any death threats against the Pope. If we can expect that (sadly) people will make threats against prominent politicians and religious figures it stops being newsworthy.

    Yes, verbal death threats against prominent public figures are relatively common. However, it is not as common for such threats to go beyond words and develop into a conspiracy. These men made took positive steps beyond a mere verbal threat (casing the pope’s visit to Turino, attempting to acquire explosives). These weren’t people blowing off steam because they don’t like Catholicism– these were men preparing to commit a crime against the pope. That’s newsworthy.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Of course the story is newsworthy. But it isn’t part of much of the media’s favorite narrative: “Peaceful Islam”–”Bad, evil Christians.”

  • don

    Hooray for the one star of the Western media who actually did cover this story in detail when it happenned, Brother Don Steele who is the host of BROTHER DON’S SUNDAY SERVICES which broadcasts (or should I say streams) on

  • Dave

    I’m with Dale — this goes beyond whack-job letters.

  • Bern

    Another “reason” for the list”

    *No “real” attempt. No drama. Boring.

  • Chris M

    Would it have been boring and non-newsworthy if it were a bunch of McVeigh types going through the same steps to murder President Obama for the sake of saving “our Christian Nation” and assuring their place at the Right Hand of the Father?

    Somehow, I think it’d be splashed all over every front page for a week.