A no-fly zone, rooftop snipers and troops recently returned from UN peacekeeping around the world will be part of efforts to ensure the mainly Roman Catholic country’s first papal visit since 1995 goes without a hitch.
The Pope will not visit the southern islands, where groups such as the Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters are conducting a campaign of bombings and attacks on security forces, and the communist New People’s Army has declared a ceasefire for the Jan. 15-19 visit.
But police and military chiefs are still wary of a ‘lone wolf’ terror threat.
Chief of Staff General Gregorio Pio Catapang said Tuesday that up to 7,000 soldiers would be deployed for the papal trips to Manila and Tacloban City and Palo on the central island of Leyte.
A further 5,000 reservists will be mobilized and around 450 troops recently returned from peacekeeping operations in Liberia, Haiti and the Lebanon will also be called on.
The Philippine National Police earlier announced that 25,000 police officers would be available for the duration of the pontiff’s stay.
“It is a security challenge in a way, but we can handle it,” Catapang said, quoted in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. “We will just make use of available forces. We’ll join forces with the [Philippine National Police].”
Speaking in Quezon City, Catapang said no direct security threats had been detected.
Prior to Pope John Paul II’s 1995 visit, police unearthed a plot to kill the pontiff involving al-Qaeda-linked terrorist Ramzi Yousef.
In 1970, Pope Paul VI was the target of an assassination attempt at Manila airport when a man lunged at him with a dagger.
Catapang said crowd control had been identified as the greatest concern, with officials worried about a "people surge" as enthusiastic well-wishers clamor for personal contact with Pope Francis, known for his populist approach, the state-run Philippine News Agency reported.
Catapang told reporters: "We are putting up barricades. Hopefully, the people will understand that they will all have a chance to get a glimpse of the Pope." He urged the public not to put the pope in a "difficult situation."
- Air cover
The military will provide air cover during the visit and sniper teams will be posted on tall buildings along Manila’s waterfront Roxas Boulevard when the Pope arrives on Tuesday next week.
Police will be on heightened alert from Friday, when the Fiesta of the Black Nazarene is held in Manila.
Ninoy Aquino international airport has announced limited operations on the days Francis will be using the airport and local carriers have cancelled more than 100 domestic and international flights.
The health ministry announced it will mobilize 120 personnel, 20 first aid stations and 20 ambulances while the Pope is in Manila, where the mayor has declared a four-day public holiday, and staff at public hospitals have been put on stand-by.
The pontiff is scheduled to arrive at the Villamor air base in Pasay City from Sri Lanka before his convoy takes him to the Apostolic Nunciature – the Vatican’s ‘embassy’ – in Malate, Manila.
He will be officially welcomed by President Benigno Aquino III at the Malacanan Palace the following day.
After a reception at the palace, Francis will be taken to Manila Cathedral for mass. Later he will have his first personal encounter with ordinary Filipinos at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay.
From there the Pope will head south to Leyte province to visit Palo, performing a mass near Tacloban City airport on Jan. 17. The area was the worst hit by 2013's Typhoon Yolanda, which killed more than 7,000 people across the country. According to government figures, four million remain homeless.
The Pope will have lunch with some of those who survived the typhoon and the Bohol earthquake, which struck three weeks earlier, killing 222.
He will bless the Pope Francis Center for the Poor in Palo before visiting the city’s cathedral to meet clergy.
Pope Francis returns to Manila on Jan. 18 to meet religious leaders and young people at the Pontifical University of Santo Tomas, attending a mass at Quirino grandstand in Rizal Park. The Pope will leave for Rome the next day.
Up to six million people are expected to attend the Quirino mass, Father Carmelo Arada Jr. said. More than five million people attended a rally in Manila ten years ago to see John Paul II.
The Philippines is the third most populous Catholic country in the world. The religion was introduced by Spanish missionaries in the early 16th century.
In 2011, it was estimated that 75.5 million Filipinos, or roughly 80 percent of the population, identify themselves as Catholic.
During the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s and 1980s, the church found itself at odds with the government, with many bishops openly criticizing martial law.