ROME — Thousands of Italians, demanding the release of three hostages held in Iraq, marched to St. Peter’s Square yesterday in a demonstration that was unprecedented during Pope John Paul II’s pontificate.
Some 3,000 politicians, peace activists and ordinary citizens answered an appeal by relatives of the three security guards, Maurizio Agliana, Umberto Cupertino, and Salvatore Stefio, for Italians to march in silence, without party symbols, from the Tiber River to Vatican City.
The rally at St. Peter’s Square represented an appeal to the Roman Catholic pontiff to intervene in the drama, the police said.
The hostages’ families hoped the unusual rally and a big turnout for traditional May Day demonstrations tomorrow will meet a demand by the “Green Brigades” gunmen holding the three. In a video aired Monday, the gunmen called for Italians to demonstrate massively against Italy’s Iraqi deployment to secure the hostages’ release.
The hostages’ relatives insisted that the procession to the Vatican was only in support of peace rather than withdrawal of troops. The event marked the first time that John Paul has allowed a nonreligious demonstration to be held in front of St. Peter’s Basilica since his election in 1978.
The hostage saga has outraged the public but not yet generated anything like the impact on Spaniards of the al Qaeda bombings of commuter trains in Madrid in March in which 191 persons were killed.
A fourth Italian hostage taken with the others three near Fallujah, Iraq, Fabrizio Quattrocchi, was killed by the gunmen. But before being slain, he reportedly lunged at one of his captives saying, “Now I am going to show you how an Italian dies.”
His death evidently strengthened the mood against giving in to terrorists, as did a huge bomb attack on Italian barracks at Nasiriyah, which killed 19 persons in December.
The hostages’ relatives had hoped that the pope would appear at his study window on St. Peter’s Square in a sign of solidarity. Instead the Vatican foreign minister, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, read an appeal by John Paul for the captives.
The Polish pontiff assured the families of his “special closeness in these moments of apprehension and anguish.”
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government has insisted Italian troops will remain in the U.S.-led coalition despite public opposition that is linked to concern over the hostages.