Posted on January 05, 2015 10:50:00 PM
By Imee Charlee C. Delavin, Reporter and Sarwell Q. Meniano, Correspondent
POPE FRANCIS will be given twice the number of the Philippine President’s close-in security aides and will also be covered by Filipino soldiers who escaped a seven-hour siege in Golan Heights in August, a Palace official said yesterday.
The Presidential Security Group (PSG) will also be assisted by members of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and soldiers that recently came back from a peace-keeping mission in Golan Heights, a hot spot because it is claimed both by Syria and Israel.
Earlier, Mr. Aquino said the government has put in place an “elaborate security plan” to ensure the safety of Pope Francis, saying “there shouldn’t be any incident while he’s in our country.”
The Palace spokesman noted that the government has not received and validated intelligence reports about groups that are planning to disrupt the papal visit. Earlier, there have been news reports that Muslim extremist groups like the Kalifa Islamiyah and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters are planning negative moves against the pope.
The President has also ordered the creation of an interagency task force to lead government preparations for the Pope’s upcoming arrival, the first papal visit since January, 1995 when then Pope and now St. John Paul II led the celebration of World Youth Day in Manila.
In Memorandum Circular No. 72, the President formed the Papal Visit 2015-National Organizing Committee (PV-NOC), tasked to coordinate with local leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and the private sector in preparing for the papal visit and to oversee “peace and order” preparations. He then declared Jan. 15, 16 and 19 as holidays to, among others, ensure better management of security arrangements for the Pope’s visit.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has earlier asked Filipinos to turn to prayer for “safety and security” as Pope Francis does not want an armored Pope mobile during his visit to the country.
Malacañang also assured that additional PSG personnel provided for the Pope will not affect the President’s security.
In Palo, Leyte, some 5,000 policemen will augment the local force here to ensure security during the papal visit on Jan. 17, when at least three million people are expected to converge in Tacloban and in this town to see Pope Francis.
Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle earlier said the Pope will arrive at the Daniel Z. Romualdez Airport on-board an Airbus 320 at past 9 a.m. from Villamor Airbase in Pasay City on Jan. 17. The same plane will bring him back to Manila in the afternoon.
Additional policemen to provide security for the Pope in Leyte will come from Bicol, Western Visayas, Central Visayas and Caraga regions, Chief Supt. Asher A. Dolina, PNP Eastern Visayas regional director, said. Eastern Visayas has about 2,000 policemen.
“Policemen have been grouped into five clusters to man different engagement areas of the Pope,” Mr. Dolina told reporters.
These include the arrival area of the Daniel Z. Romualdez Airport, the apron where the papal mass will be held, the Tacloban-Palo road sections for the motorcade, Archbishop Residence in Palo town for lunch with the survivors of recent calamities, and Palo Cathedral for a meeting with Catholic leaders.
Police expect some 2.6 million pilgrims from Eastern Visayas alone who will take part in two major events — open-air mass at the new airport apron and papal motorcade from Tacloban airport to Archbishop Palace in Palo town.
“Our estimate is 2.6 million based on the adult population in the region. It could be more than three million if we will include Catholics from other parts of the country,” Mr. Dolina said.
Police will hold a rehearsal on Jan. 11 to test their preparedness in responding to different security concerns that may arise during the papal visit.
The entire 12-kilometer road stretch from the airport to Palo town will be closed to traffic dawn of Jan. 17 until the Pope’s departure before sunset as millions are expected to line up on the streets to greet the church leader.
The Department of Public Works and Highways will put 700 pieces of 1.2-meter-high guardrails along the road to prevent the crowd from mobbing the pontiff.
Upon his arrival at the Daniel Z. Romualdez Airport, the Pope will lead an open-air mass to be attended by 120,000 carefully vetted attendees from different parts of the country. About 78,000 are from Leyte province or under the Archdiocese of Palo, badly affected by super-typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).
Registration in parishes ended on Dec. 29 to allow church officials to see if there’s a need to fill vacant seats. Production of identification cards for the mass is under way.
Msgr. Alex T. Opiniano, chairman of the security and public order committee, said mass attendees should all be seated around 7 a.m. or three hours before the 10 a.m. mass. The venue will be opened the night before the visit.
Banned during the mass are umbrellas, non-transparent bags, bottled water and bladed objects.
“This is not to make things difficult for everyone, but to ensure safety of the Pope and every pilgrim. Putting a lot of people in one place entails a lot of effort,” Mr. Opiniano said.
The government will deploy 800 medical staff to respond to emergency health needs of pilgrims and onlookers during the visit.
Filedita Dico, Department of Health regional health emergency medical services coordinator, said that medical staff will man 25 mobile health stations to be placed in strategic areas.
“The Health department has identified eight hospitals for confinement of pilgrims,” Ms. Dico said.
A private hospital was tagged as an official hospital of the pontiff during his seven-hour stay in Leyte, but the committee declined to identify the facility for security reasons.
“All hospitals in Palo and Tacloban assured us that they are all prepared and ready for any eventuality during Pope Francis’ visit,” said Fr. George Garcia, chairman of the local committee on health services.
Each mobile station is manned by doctors, nurses, carriers and other health emergency responders.
The Philippine Coast Guard will enforce a no-sail zone near the airport district for security reasons. Pilgrims who need hospital confinement will be brought to the health facilities by sea.
The Department of Public Works and Highways has set aside P70 million for the improvement of the airport apron, said Regional Director Rolando M. Asis.
The project has widened and paved the open-air venue for the papal mass, increasing the existing four hectares to 6.5 hectares. The area is also fenced.
“For as long as the weather will cooperate, we will finish all preparations within the first week of January. However, we are very optimistic to complete all related projects days before the visit regardless of weather conditions,” Mr. Asis said.
Local church leaders have yet to finalize the menu for the Pope’s lunch at the Archbishop Palace with 30 poor survivors of recent destructive natural calamities.
Fr. Amadeo Alvero, Archdiocese of Palo social communications director, said the Church will surely serve lechon (roasted pig).
“Even if Pope Francis will not try it, lechon will be on the table as part of the Filipino tradition,” he said.
The food committee is consulting with Vatican representatives to find out the specific food preference of Pope Francis. Menu for the lunch will be finalized a week before the papal visit, according to Mr. Alvero.
The Archdiocese has not yet revealed the names of the 30 people who will dine with Pope Francis. Of the 30 survivors, five are from Bohol; five from Borongan in Eastern Samar; five from Calbayog City in Samar and 15 from Tacloban City and nearby towns of Palo, Tolosa and Tanauan, in Leyte.