- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2001

VATICAN CITY The Vatican is playing down the risks, but Kazakhstan is mobilizing more than 2,000 soldiers and police to protect Pope John Paul II when he begins a visit to the volatile Central Asian region on Saturday.
Kazakhstan says the measures are unprecedented after the terrorist attacks in the United States. An aide said John Paul, reportedly targeted in the past by Islamic militants, insisted on making the trip, part of his efforts for better relations with non-Catholics.
The sprawling country shares borders with three other former Soviet republics Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that have sporadically battled incursions by Islamic radicals since 1999. The insurgents, believed to be trained in Afghanistan, appear to be aiming to carve out an Islamic state in the region.
Of the 15 million people in Kazakhstan, some 8 million are Muslims and 6 million are Orthodox Christians, with a tiny Catholic community of 360,000, many of them from families deported to Central Asia in the Stalinist years.
"There wasn't a debate on whether the pope should go, although the security issue was raised," papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said this week. "The decision was left to John Paul."
The frail, 81-year-old pope will spend four days in Kazakhstan, then make a two-day visit to Armenia before returning Sept. 27 to Rome.
Kazakh Foreign Minister Bulat Iskakov said this week that 2,400 Interior Ministry police and troops would guard the Kazakh capital, Astana, during the pope's stay.
"The security measures will be unprecedented in connection with the recent terrorist attacks in the United States," he was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.
As always during his foreign travels, about a half-dozen Vatican security men will fly with John Paul aboard his Alitalia jetliner from Rome. They will join a small security contingent sent directly from the Vatican to Kazakhstan.
The bulk of security, as always, is left to the local government.
In the past, the Vatican has not hesitated to drop a trip for security reasons.
The threat from Islamic militants was reportedly raised during an Asian tour six years ago.
Philippines police say that Ramzi Yousef, the convicted mastermind of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, had planned to kill the pope when John Paul visited the Philippines in 1995.
The Italian press has carried speculation that the Vatican is a target of Islamic terrorists and that St. Peter's Basilica could be a site.

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