VATICAN CITY (AFP) – Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish former extremist who attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II, on Saturday laid flowers on the late pontiff’s tomb.
The latest highly publicised act of contrition by Agca came 31 years to the day after John Paul visited him in prison in Rome to forgive him for the 1981 shooting that nearly killed the leader of the world’s Catholics.
Agca, then 23, shot the pope twice from close range in St Peter’s Square, one bullet passing through his abdomen and another narrowly missing his heart.
He arrived back in Rome unexpectedly on Saturday and presented himself to police to declare his intention to lay the flowers.
“I felt the need to make this gesture,” he told police, according to Italian media who had been tipped off in advance about his visit.
Granted authorisation to pay his respects under a discreet police escort, Agca was filmed by the ADNKronos news agency murmuring a prayer at the side of the tomb after he had deposited his bouquet of white roses.
Agca requested a meeting with Pope Francis when the current pontiff visited Turkey last month. That was declined as was a fresh request for an audience this weekend in Rome.
“He has put flowers on the tomb of John Paul II. I think that is enough,” Francis’s spokesman, Federico Lombardi, told La Repubblica.
The motive for Agca’s 1981 attack on the pope remains a mystery.
He served nearly three decades in prisons in Italy and Turkey and is widely considered to be mentally disturbed.
At the time of the assassination attempt, Agca was on the run from the Turkish authorities over a string of crimes, including the murder of a journalist, and his links to the far-right Grey Wolves movement.
He initially testified that he had acted alone but later claimed the Bulgarian and Soviet secret services had orchestrated the attempted murder because of the Polish pope’s anti-communist stance.