MILAN – The Vatican has declared a state of alert and has stepped up security measures following last week’s terror attacks in Paris.
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While the Italian media are widely reporting alleged threats against Vatican City by the Islamic State, the Vatican claims these are not legitimate and are not the reason for the security alert. It did reveal to local news agencies, however, that it has intensified its contacts with Italian intelligence authorities – although again, it denied that this was due to any specific threats from the extremist Islamic movement.
Italy's Division of General Investigations and Special Operations (DIGOS), the national counter-terror agency, confirmed that the Vatican has been in a state of alert for the past two days.
“In the Vatican we already had strong security and now we have strengthened it further,” the head of DIGOS’ Rome division, Diego Parente, told Italy’s main news agency, Ansa, on Monday.
Parente did not state what specifically had prompted the tightened security efforts, but denied there had been any credible threats from the Islamic State, also called ISIS of ISIL.
“We do have no confirmation of a threat against the Vatican, but we are in a state of high alert,” Parente said, adding that such a situation exists “also in other [Italian] cities” at present.
For his part, the head of Vatican Press Office, Father Federico Lombardi was also quoted in the media as saying, “We haven’t received information about any specific dangers ... The current situation [i.e., in the wake of the attacks in Paris] requires particular attention and caution, but we should not feed baseless fears.”
Meanwhile, security has been stepped up in other areas of Rome in the wake of the Paris attacks last week, especially in locales believed to be potential targets for Islamic terrorists. Ansa reports that the police presence has been augmented in the Jewish Ghetto, the ancient neighborhood where the city’s main synagogue, as well as kosher restaurants and Jewish businesses, is located. Security at the community's one official school there is particularly tight.
Rome is home to some 20,000 Jews, by far the largest concentration in the country.
“The security was stepped up due to a decision by the Roman police,” Fabio Perugia, the spokesperson of the city’s Jewish community, told Haaretz. “We are worried about the Paris attacks just as all European citizens are. That said, Jewish life in Rome is going on normally. We’re not closing any synagogues. Actually, we’re trying to fill them as much as possible. We had a big celebration for the 57th wedding anniversary of Sami Modiano, a Holocaust survivor, and his wife Selma on the very same night [Friday, Jan. 9] the big Paris synagogue was shut down.”
As for the Vatican, reports of ISIS threats have appeared in the Italian media since late last year, when the Islamist organization warned, in its official propaganda magazine Dabiq, that it would “conquer” Rome. The magazine’s October 14th cover featured the words “The Failed Crusade,” and a photo-shopped image of St. Peter’s Square with the ISIS flag raised on its obelisk. The article inside invited jihadis to kill “every possible crusader” – an apparent reference to Christians.
The threats that were widely discussed in the Italian media at the time were apparently not taken particularly seriously by officials – or by the general public, resulting in Italian social media being flooded with jokes such as “Dear ISIS, feel free to come here, you’ll get stuck in the traffic anyway.”
But, as the media are now saying, in the wake of the attacks in Paris that claimed the lives of 17 people last week, the possibility of an attack on the Vatican is becoming a real concern for Italy’s security agencies.