In Defence of His Holiness: the Pontifical Swiss Guard and the Islamic State

They stood solid. Their red, yellow and blue coloured uniforms remained resolute in the face of a vast and vicious enemy. Desertion to the surrounding countryside and escaping with their lives was an option, but they stayed, pledging unswerving allegiance and giving their lives for the safety their shepherd, their one true leader, His Holiness Pope Clement VII. It was 6th May 1527 and the imperialist army of Charles V, leader of the Habsburg Empire, had begun attacking the walls of Rome. This event perhaps marks the finest hour in the long and honourable history of the Pontifical Swiss Guard. Forming a human barrier on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica, 147 of 189 Swiss Guards were massacred by the Habsburg imperialist forces.[1] Rome was sacked and many citizens loyal to the papacy were brutally executed, but His Holiness Pope Clement VII miraculously escaped to Castel San Angelo via the secret passageway, known as the Passetto di Borgo, accompanied by the remaining 42 Swiss Guards.[2] This is an example of the great honour and history of the Pontifical Swiss Guard, and the high tradition held to the present day.

Image courtesy of Alberto Luccaroni © 2006, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Alberto Luccaroni © 2006, some rights reserved.

A predominantly symbolic history, the Pontifical Swiss Guard has resorted to armed combat on certain occasions, such as the Sack of Rome in 1527. Today, the Guard wears the same Renaissance-style uniforms and is situated in the Vatican City. Unlike the early modern period, the Swiss Guard and the Western world face a different kind of enemy. Where once European states battled for continental dominance, a radical Islamic militant group is arming to threaten the peace of the world. Ironically, this militant group, the Islamic State (IS), has employed essentially medieval domestic customs, where one can be crucified for drug dealing.[3] This militant group is fuelled by extremist religious ideology and actively seeks to extend its territory, as is demonstrated by the attacks in Europe and North Africa. The Pope as the leader of the Catholic Church, seen as an enemy by IS from their ill-informed historical research, is naturally a potential target.

As recently as February 2015, reports emerged that entities closely associated with IS were present in the south of Italy. Indeed, Swiss Guard Commander Christoph Graf stated ‘we have asked all the Swiss Guards to be more attentive and to carefully monitor the movement of people’[4] demonstrating that the Swiss Guard views IS as a threat. The horrifying examples of recent terrorism in France, both the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the November Paris Attacks, are examples of the ruthless enemy we face. The November Attacks are particularly disturbing insofar as they targeted normal, decent people at leisure in bars and restaurants, theatres and sports stadiums, and accurately illustrates the terror and savagery of IS.[5] If this radical militant group is attempting to Western culture and way of life, then it is certainly reasonable to argue it will target Catholicism too.

The threats having been outlined, we must examine the extent to which the Swiss Guard is prepared to deal with any threat of extremist violence. The Guard is obviously a small, specialised group of soldiers, thus the very notion of manpower is an initial weakness. The attempted assassination of His Holiness Pope John Paul II in 1981 serves as an example of the evolution of the Guard.[6] Traditional weapons include a sword and a command baton, but this particular assassination attempt forced an upheaval in training and equipment. Since then, Guards receive regular arms and counter-assault training, and the Guards’ inventory now includes weapons like the Steyr Tactical Machine Pistol.[7] Indeed, Guards must be Swiss Nationals, unmarried and Catholic.[8] It is, of course, impossible to know how a large-scale terrorist attack against the Papacy would be dealt with, but an outline of the Swiss Guard’s modern training and weaponry serves as an example of their relevance to the contemporary world. The argument highlighting the idea that IS will attack, or attempt to attack, Rome, is certainly not ill-founded, as Adji Rasheed maintains ‘Islamic State supporters are claiming on social media that the group has now entered Rome and that the “countdown to terror”, implying its planned attack, has started’.[9] Rasheed demonstrates that the idea of an attack by IS in Rome and the Vatican City is a possibility and no longer an irrational fear.

We must therefore question the significance of the Pontifical Swiss Guard and the role it would play if a terrorist attack against the Papacy, and therefore global religious practice, was to occur. What the attacks in France have shown is the efficiency of the special forces in tracking, and subsequently terminating, those individuals who carried out the attacks. Whilst the organisation of the French intelligence services is questionable, there is no doubt that both 2015 attacks were dealt with courageously and admirably in real time.[10] It is therefore difficult to imagine what role a small bodyguard-like force numbering under two hundred could do in the event of a terrorist attack. What we must realise, however, is that despite being small in number, the Pontifical Swiss Guard is unmatched in the loyalty it assigns to its leader, as has been the case over the past 500 years.

IS is a radical Islamic militant group arming to impose its violence and savagery on continental culture and religion. It is difficult to know if IS will attack Rome and the Vatican City, but if it did, one thing is for certain: it would be met by a remarkably loyal and honourable group of men, dressed in the very same red, yellow and blue, on the steps of St Peter’s Basilica, prepared to give their lives for the defence of the Pope and all civilised societies and religions, whether Catholic or Protestant, Jew or Muslim, against the clutches of evil. The time has come for all civilised religions and societies to unite, condemn and subsequently defeat the Islamic State and the vicious reign of terror it takes pride in.

[1] John-Peter Pham, Heirs of the Fisherman: Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 309.

[2] Stephen Klimczuk and Gerald Warner, Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries: Uncovering Mysterious Sites, Symbols, and Societies (New York, NY: Sterling Publishing, 2009), p. 103.

[3] Vice News Documentary, The Islamic State (Vice News, 2014).

[4] Mark Yapching, ‘Vatican, Italy increase security over Islamic State threats’ via http://www.christiantoday.com/article/vatican.italy.increase.security.over.islamic.state.threats/48497.htm (retrieved 14th November, 2015).

[5] Jessica Elgot, Claire Phipps and Jonathan Bucks, ‘Paris attacks: Islamic State says killings were response to Syria strikes’ via http://www.theguardian.com/world/live/2015/nov/14/paris-terror-attacks-attackers-dead-mass-killing-live-updates (retrieved 14th November, 2015).

[6] Timothy Tindal-Robertson, Fatima, Russia and Pope John Paul II: How Mary Intervened to Deliver Russia from Marxist Atheism (Leominster, UK: Gracewing, 1998), p. 7.

[7] Eitan Meyr, ‘Special Weapons for Counter-Terrorist Units’ (Law Enforcement, 1999).

[8] Admission Requirements of the Pontifical Swiss Guard via http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/swiss_guard/swissguard/ammissione_en.htm (retrieved 14th November, 2015).

[9] Adil Rasheed, ISIS: Race to Armageddon (New Delhi: Vij Books, 2015), p. 111.

[10] BBC News, ‘Charlie Hebdo hunt: Bloody end to sieges’ via http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-30752239 (retrieved 14th November, 2015).

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