Fears for the Pope’s safety during his trip to Brazil were growing yesterday as violent protests broke out in Rio de Janeiro within hours of his arrival.
“We’ve got nothing against the pope,” said Christopher Creindel, a 22-year-old art student from Rio who was protesting outside the palace. “This protest is against our politicians.”
The unrest was an inauspicious start to the Pope’s trip, and came after he was mobbed while travelling in a motorcade from Rio airport to the city centre.
After the driver of his modest four-door silver Fiat took a wrong turn, the motorcade became stuck in traffic and hundreds of people swarmed around the vehicle, thrusting their hands through an open window in the hope of touching the first South American Pope.
The Vatican gendarmes and Brazilian security officers escorting the Pope appeared at one point to have completely lost control of their situation and had to shove bystanders away.
The 30,000 soldiers and police who have been deployed to provide security for the week-long visit to Brazil were nowhere to be seen.
Security experts said the 76-year-old Pope was left extremely vulnerable during the chaotic scenes.
“If there had been a hooligan among the faithful, he could have thrown a stone or something worse,” Diogenes Dantas, a colonel in the Brazilian army and an expert on security planning for major events, told the Brazilian newspaper O Globo.
Despite the chaos he experienced during the opening hours of his visit, the Pope himself seemed unperturbed.
“Thank you to all of you and to all the authorities for a magnificent welcome in Rio,” he wrote on Twitter.
Underlying concern for the Pope’s security in a country recently convulsed by anti-government protests, the authorities said they had found a home-made bomb at a Catholic shrine that Francis will visit on Wednesday.
The device, found on Sunday in a lavatory at the sanctuary of Aparecida, between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, was detonated by military police.
The Vatican played down the security fears, saying it had total confidence in the Brazilian authorities.
Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, admitted that the Pope’s secretary had been “terrified” during the frenzied mobbing of the motorcade, but that Francis himself had been unperturbed by the “enthusiasm” of well-wishers.
“There are no concerns for security,” he said, adding that Francis did not want the existing level of security to be ramped up or “militarised”.
But Father Lombardi acknowledged there might have been some “errors” in the planning of the Pope’s arrival and that security arrangements might need to be revised.
One of the biggest security challenges will come on Thursday when Francis visits one of Rio’s notorious favelas or shanty towns.
He will then address young Catholics from around the world from a stage on Copacabana beach.