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Turkey releases gunman who shot pope in 1981

After nearly 30 years behind bars, the Turkish man who tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II walked out of a prison a free man Monday and promptly predicted the end of the world.

Now a gray-haired 52-year-old, Mehmet Ali Agca declared himself the “Christ eternal” and prophesied that humanity would be wiped out this century, in a statement passed out to a scrum of television cameras and waiting reporters in Ankara, the Turkish capital.

Later, the hollow-cheeked Agca, who has spent more of his life in prison than out, was declared mentally disturbed by doctors who exempted him from mandatory military service, the Associated Press reported.

Agca shot John Paul several times on May 13, 1981, as the pontiff waved at followers while riding in his open-backed jeep through St. Peter’s Square in Rome. Bystanders screamed in horror as the pope was whisked away with serious wounds to his hand, arm and abdomen.

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Agca was caught at the scene, convicted and sent to an Italian prison, where he remained for 19 years. But his motives have remained opaque, clouded by his own contradictory statements, and it is still unclear whether he acted on his own or as part of a plot by others.

Allegations persist that Agca’s assassination attempt was commissioned by Soviet intelligence, acting through Bulgarian agents, to remove John Paul because of his support for the Solidarity movement in the pontiff’s native Poland.

An Italian parliamentary panel concluded in 2006 that the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991, was responsible. Moscow denies the charge.

Agca has said he would speak about the attack after leaving prison and that he would entertain book and movie offers. Upon his release Monday, he also vowed to write a new and perfect Gospel, telling reporters that the ones in the Bible were flawed. He also said that “all the world will be destroyed [and] every human being will die” by century’s end.

John Paul visited his would-be killer in 1983 and bestowed his forgiveness.

In 2000, the Italian president issued an official pardon. That cleared the way for his extradition to Turkey to serve out a sentence for the murder of a left-wing journalist, Abdi Ipekci, in 1979. Agca, an alleged sympathizer of a far-right movement called the Gray Wolves, had escaped from prison less than six months into his sentence for Ipekci’s killing.

Agca has expressed a desire to travel to Rome to pay tribute to John Paul, who died in 2005.

“If Ali Agca wants to come and pray at John Paul II’s tomb, I fully agree,” Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, told Italian television Monday, according to Italy’s ANSA news agency.

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“Let’s not forget that . . . the first to forgive him was John Paul II,” Turkson said. But, he added, Agca “would have to be accompanied to the Vatican by a large number of security officers -- that has to be clear.”

henry.chu@latimes.com


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