Vatican Mystery: Who Ordered the Attempted Murder of Pope John Paul II? 

The attempted 1981 murder the Pope remains one of the century’s great mysteries.


In the heart of Vatican City, Pope John Paul II's life hung by a thread when he was shot by Turkish assassin Mehmet Ali Ağca in St Peter's Square.

"I wanted to leave a mark on history and then leave," Ağca said in an interview for the series Spy Ops (2023). His precise plan was to kill the Pope, then commit suicide. Ağca fired two shots before his gun jammed. As the Pope lay slumped and bleeding, a nun grabbed Ağca's hand. He was immediately caught.

Despite Ağca's admission, the brazen attack remains a mystery overlaid with shadowy figures and murky motives. Ağca was convicted and later pardoned at the Pope's request but did Ağca act alone?

The suspected conspirators read like a Who’s Who of underworld operatives. The Grey Wolves paramilitary group, KGB spies, Bulgarian agents, and Turkish mafiosi are all among the suspects although none were imprisoned, leading to lingering questions about who may have pulled the strings behind the attempted murder.

Ağca’s criminal connections

Ağca was born in Turkey in 1958 and graduated from street gangs and petty crime to smuggling rings. He claims to also have training in weapons and terrorist tactics as a member of the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a group that carried out suicide operations in the ‘70s. Ağca said his training in Syria was paid for by the Communist Bulgarian government. The PFLP denies any links to Ağca, however.

Turkish assassin Mehmet Ali Ağca

Ağca may have also worked for the Grey Wolves (sometimes spelled ‘Gray’ Wolves), a fascist organization that allegedly ordered Ağca to murder the editor of the Turkish newspaper, Milliyet, in 1979.

While Ağca was sentenced to life in prison, he escaped and is believed to have fled to Bulgaria where the Turkish mafia had a base.

To add one more layer of complexity, police who arrested Ağca found a false passport belonging to another Grey Wolf member - Abdullah Catli - suspected of helping Ağca break out of prison.

Nothing is clear-cut though in the wilderness of mirrors.

Pope John Paul II died in 2005 at age 84


Vatican Mystery: Who Ordered the Attempted Murder of Pope John Paul II? 

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The attempted 1981 murder the Pope remains one of the century’s great mysteries.


In the heart of Vatican City, Pope John Paul II's life hung by a thread when he was shot by Turkish assassin Mehmet Ali Ağca in St Peter's Square.

"I wanted to leave a mark on history and then leave," Ağca said in an interview for the series Spy Ops (2023). His precise plan was to kill the Pope, then commit suicide. Ağca fired two shots before his gun jammed. As the Pope lay slumped and bleeding, a nun grabbed Ağca's hand. He was immediately caught.

Despite Ağca's admission, the brazen attack remains a mystery overlaid with shadowy figures and murky motives. Ağca was convicted and later pardoned at the Pope's request but did Ağca act alone?

The suspected conspirators read like a Who’s Who of underworld operatives. The Grey Wolves paramilitary group, KGB spies, Bulgarian agents, and Turkish mafiosi are all among the suspects although none were imprisoned, leading to lingering questions about who may have pulled the strings behind the attempted murder.

Ağca’s criminal connections

Ağca was born in Turkey in 1958 and graduated from street gangs and petty crime to smuggling rings. He claims to also have training in weapons and terrorist tactics as a member of the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a group that carried out suicide operations in the ‘70s. Ağca said his training in Syria was paid for by the Communist Bulgarian government. The PFLP denies any links to Ağca, however.

Turkish assassin Mehmet Ali Ağca

Ağca may have also worked for the Grey Wolves (sometimes spelled ‘Gray’ Wolves), a fascist organization that allegedly ordered Ağca to murder the editor of the Turkish newspaper, Milliyet, in 1979.

While Ağca was sentenced to life in prison, he escaped and is believed to have fled to Bulgaria where the Turkish mafia had a base.

To add one more layer of complexity, police who arrested Ağca found a false passport belonging to another Grey Wolf member - Abdullah Catli - suspected of helping Ağca break out of prison.

Nothing is clear-cut though in the wilderness of mirrors.

Pope John Paul II died in 2005 at age 84


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The plot to kill the Pope

The CIA muddied the waters further by alleging the assassination attempt on the Pope was the work of the Soviets using Bulgarian cutouts. “This has never been proven, and a much more plausible case can be made that it was a rightist plot,” according to investigative journalist Lucy Komisar

The ‘rightist plot’ supposedly involves the European ‘stay-behind’ organizations, CIA and Nato groups of civilians trained to fight the Soviets should Moscow invade Europe during the Cold War. The CIA rolled out its top-secret stay-behind operation across Europe in the ‘50s.

“Stay-behind networks of underground militia were to be secretly trained in sabotage and supplied with weapons and radios to prepare for war,” former CIA director William Colby wrote in his autobiography Honorable Men. “These nets had to be coordinated with Nato’s plans, their radios had to be hooked to a future exile location, and the specialized equipment had to be secured from the CIA and secretly cached in snowy hideouts for later use.”

In 1990, Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti acknowledged the existence of Italy’s Gladio stay-behinds who are said to have worked with the Mafia and neo-fascists to undercut the communists. Andreotti said Italy had used a "strategy of tension" to battle the communist party. In other words, Gladio’s right-wing stay-behinds conducted bombings, then blamed the terrorism on the left. 

Komisar said she believes the assassination attempt on the Pope may have been part of this strategy of tension. 

Ağca: Papal forgiveness and penance 

Ağca was pardoned in 2000 at the Pope’s request and extradited to Turkey over the 1979 murder of a Milliyet newspaper editor and other crimes.

On his release in 2010, Ağca promised to reveal the full story about the attempted assassination of the Pope, yet there were concerns about Ağca’s mental health.

In a statement distributed by his lawyer, Ağca declared: "I proclaim the end of the world. All the world will be destroyed in this century. Every human being will die in this century... I am the Christ eternal."

A year before the assassination attempt, Ağca traveled across the Mediterranean region and testified that he’d met three accomplices in Rome - a Turk and two Bulgarians - in an operation commanded by Bulgarian military attaché in Italy Zilo Vassilev. Ağca later changed his storty and suggested Bulgaria and the KGB were behind the attack, but backed off that claim as well.

Pope John Paul II was shot May 13, 1981, as he rode in an open car in St Peter's Square

The main suspects

Le Monde diplomatique alleged that the 'Bulgarian Connection' was actually Bekir Celenk, an alleged gun trafficker who paid the Grey Wolves $1.2m to organize the assassination attempt targeting the Pope. Celenk denied it. 

On March 2, 2006, an Italian parliamentary commission - citing new photographic analysis - found that the Soviets were behind the failed plot most likely because John Paul supported the Solidarity Labor movement and because of concerns the Catholic church was the focus of Soviet resistance in the Pope’s native Poland.

"This commission holds, beyond any reasonable doubt that the leadership of the Soviet Union took the initiative," the commission wrote in their report, a copy of which was attained by The Associated Press. The report had no legal bearing, however, and Soviet involvement hasn’t been proven. 

As for John Paul, he writes about the aftermath in his book Memory and Identity. The Pope said that he visited his attacker in prison in 1983. “We spoke at length,” John Paul wrote. “Ali Ağca, as everyone knows, was a professional assassin. This means the attack was not his own initiative, it was someone else's idea. Someone else had commissioned him to carry it out.”

But who? This gripping question still shrouds the century in an enigmatic veil of mystery.

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