Vatican says pope attacker will be forgiven

VATICAN CITY, Dec 26, 2009 (AFP) - A serene Pope Benedict XVI gave a Christmas Day message of tolerance just hours after being bundled to the ground by an attacker who vaulted past guards to reach the pontiff.

The Vatican said that the woman named as having carried out the assault, Susanna Maiolo, 25, would be forgiven. The pope was unhurt in the dramatic attack in St Peter's Basilica while a prominent French cardinal was among others who fell in the scramble and was hospitalised with a broken hip.

The woman tried a similar manoeuvre at the same Christmas Eve mass a year earlier, according to the Vatican. Maiolo, who has Swiss-Italian nationality, told doctors she “did not want to hurt” the pope, La Republica newspaper reported.

Handout picture released on December 25, 2009 by police shows pope Benedict XVI's assailant Susanna Maiolo. AFP

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told AFP that Maiolo was “apparently unbalanced,” but that Vatican was likely to be “very lenient” and that she would be pardoned. While questions were asked about Vatican security, Benedict spoke confidently when he appeared again for his Christmas Day “Urbi et Orbi”blessing to tens of thousands of pilgrims massed in St Peter's Square.

He made an appeal to “abandon all logic of violence and revenge” and engage with “force” and “generosity” on “the path of peaceful coexistence.”Benedict focused his message on the plight of migrants.

“In the face of the exodus of all those who migrate from their homelands and are driven away by hunger, intolerance or environmental degradation,” the Roman Catholic Church calls for “an attitude of acceptance and welcome,” he said.

The leader of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics said society remains “deeply marked by a severe economic crisis” and “the painful wounds of war and conflict.”Adding a new condemnation of abortion, Benedict XVI went on to give traditional blessings in 65 languages, having apparently answered any immediate doubts about his health following the assault.

The attack came amid concerns about his health, fuelled by a Vatican decision to move the Christmas Eve mass forward two hours before midnight due to the pontiff's advanced age. There was relieved applause broke out around St Peter's Basilica when the pope got back on his feet within moments of the woman leaping over a security barrier and grabbing Pope Benedict's robes near the neck and pulling him to the floor.

Several other people also fell French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, 87, broke his hip and will have to undergo surgery, the Vatican said. Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, archbishop of Genoa and head of the Italian bishop's conference, played down the incident. “Nothing serious happened. It was a woman who tried to greet the holy father,” he was quoted as saying by La Republica.

The Vatican later named Maiolo and said she had been hospitalised for “necessary treatment.”Vatican spokesman Lombardi also dismissed the importance of the incident, highlighting the pontiff's “great self-control”.

He said the only way to protect the pope from all risk would be to create a wall between him and the faithful, but that this was “unthinkable.”He added: “It was an assault, but it wasn't dangerous because she wasn't armed.”The Christmas Eve mass is one of few occasions when tourists and pilgrims can get close to the pontiff.

Papal security has been tightened since Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turk, shot and nearly killed Benedict's predecessor John Paul II in St Peter's Square in 1981.

Thursday's incident occurred less than two weeks after a man, said to have mental problems, attacked Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Milan, breaking his nose and several teeth with a model of Milan cathedral.

“We must really put a stop to this machine of lies, extremism and hatred,”Berlusconi, who is still recovering from the attack, told TG1 television in an interview when asked about the assault on the pope.

Benedict has had no notable health problems since his 2005 election apart from a fractured wrist from a fall in July while on holiday.

Four years before he became pope, however, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spent nearly a month in hospital following a brain haemorrhage, according to the German daily Bild. It said he has since suffered from fainting spells.

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