Security for Pope stepped up amid new safety fears
Pope Francis condemned "fundamentalist terrorism" and "deviant forms of religion" for last week's terrorist attacks in Paris, amid fresh claims that he himself may be at risk of attack from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
The Pope said religion was being perverted by extremists and used to justify evil, including "the tragic slayings" of 17 people that took place in Paris last week after Islamist extremists attacked the office of the satirical magazine 'Charlie Hebdo' and took people hostage in a kosher supermarket.
"Religious fundamentalism, even before it eliminates human beings by perpetrating horrendous killings, eliminates God himself, turning him into a mere ideological pretext," the 78-year-old pontiff said in an annual address to foreign diplomats accredited to the Vatican.
"Losing their freedom, people become enslaved, whether to the latest fads, or to power, money, or even deviant forms of religion," he said in his 'State of the World' speech.
He spoke out against the menace posed by Islamic fundamentalism after an Israeli television channel reported that the Vatican could be Isil's next target.
In a separate claim, 'Bild am Sonntag', a German newspaper, reported that telephone conversations between Isil leaders, intercepted by the US National Security Agency, indicated that four units of "commando" terrorists were preparing to infiltrate Europe by mixing with boatloads of refugees.
Italian and Vatican authorities downplayed the reports, saying they had received no concrete information about an imminent attack against either the Pope or the Vatican.
"There do not seem to be indications of a specific risk," said Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
Angelino Alfano, the deputy prime minister and interior minister, said that while Italy and the Vatican were not at "zero risk", no specific intelligence had been passed on by the US or any other ally.
"What is evident, however, is that the Vatican has been named several times, unfortunately, by the caliphate (of the Islamic State)," he said.
In slickly produced propaganda videos posted online, Isil has declared its ambition to "conquer Rome" and to see the black flag of the Islamic caliphate flying from the top of St Peter's Basilica.
Security was stepped up for the Pope's address on Sunday, and yesterday at least seven police vehicles were positioned in St Peter's Square, a greater number than usual.
The Pope blamed "the spread of fundamentalist terrorism in Syria and in Iraq" for much of the violence tearing apart the Middle East, saying that it had "chilling repercussions" such as the massacre of civilians and the persecution of Christians and other minorities.
He appealed to the international community to act on behalf of the minorities being hounded by Isil.
"A Middle East without Christians would be a marred and mutilated Middle East," he said.
Reiterating comments he made during a visit to Turkey in November, he said he looked to Muslim leaders to condemn violence being perpetrated around the world in the name of Islam.
"I express my hope that religious, political and intellectual leaders, especially those of the Muslim community, will condemn all fundamentalist and extremist interpretations of religion which attempt to justify such acts of violence," he told the diplomats.
He also denounced the "abominable" kidnapping and enslavement of school girls by Boko Haram militants in northern Nigeria and the slaughter of "unspeakable brutality" of more than 100 children by the Taliban in Pakistan.
Later yesterday, the Pontiff embarked on a visit to Sri Lanka, for a week-long tour which will also include the Philippines. (© Daily Telegraph, London)