MANILA, Philippines–The Philippines has assigned a thousand-strong force that includes its United Nations peacekeepers to guard Pope Francis when he visits the country next January, the military said on Sunday.
The papal security force will include 328 soldiers from the 7th Philippine Contingent to the Golan Heights withdrawn from the UN-administered ceasefire line between Israel and Syria after the unit, defying an order to surrender, fought off an attack by Syrian rebels last month.
“We believe that their exposure and experience in peacekeeping operations in Syria will be beneficial [to the security of Pope Francis during his visit to the Philippines],” Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. said in a statement Sunday.
Two battalions of Filipino UN peacekeepers, including those withdrawn from the Golan Heights as well as those who had been training to replace them, will join a police-led security detail for the Pope, Catapang said.
An AFP battalion comprises about 500 soldiers.
The decision to involve the military in security for the Pope followed reports that Francis will not use a bulletproof vehicle during his Jan. 15-19 visit to the Philippines and an implied threat from the Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East to kill him for calling for international action against the jihadist group.
Abu Sayyaf publicity stunt
In July, a faction of the Abu Sayyaf group led by Isnilon Hapilon swore allegiance to IS, which has seized large swaths of northern Iraq and beheaded hostages from Western countries supporting the US-led air campaign to degrade and eventually destroy it.
The military has said it does not believe the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf has direct ties with IS and that the oath of loyalty is merely an expression of sympathy intended more to elevate its profile and for financial gain.
National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia said on Saturday that the Abu Sayyaf pledge was a “shallow show of support” for IS, riding on the popularity of the Middle East group in the international jihadi community.
Border security tightened
Still, the government said it was not taking the IS threat lightly and that it had ordered the tightening of border security and tapped the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has signed a peace agreement with the government, and civilians for the gathering and sharing of information to block the entry of IS operatives into the Philippines.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) said Pope Francis would visit survivors of Super Typhoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan) in Tacloban City, Leyte province.
Yolanda ravaged central Philippines on Nov. 8 last year, leaving about 7,300 people dead and thousands homeless.
Francis will eat a meal with the survivors, traveling to them in an unprotected vehicle.
During his visit to South Korea in August, Francis also ditched the bulletproof Popemobile, choosing to ride in an ordinary, Korean-made car.
Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle has said the Pope does not use a bulletproof vehicle, even in the Vatican.
Some politicians have said the information may be exploited by the Abu Sayyaf, prompting the government to order “double security” for the Pope during his visit to the country.
Catapang said the AFP committed the two battalions to support the Philippine National Police in providing security for the Pope.
He said the military force would be under the operational control of the PNP, which would be in charge of overall security for the four-day papal visit.