Authorities in the Philippines are ramping up security in the country’s capital city Manila ahead of Pope Francis’ visit next week to protect the Catholic leader, who has reportedly decided to ride in an open vehicle instead of a bulletproof, enclosed popemobile. Preparations include deploying up to 37,000 additional security forces, including 6,000 to 7,000 soldiers, as well as tens of thousands of policemen and reservists, according to ABS-CBN News.
The pope’s decision to ride in an unprotected vehicle has raised concerns about the pontiff’s safety while in the Philippines. Philippines Armed Forces chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang described Pope Francis’ visit as “a security challenge.” The pope has often stopped his motorcade to shake hands with or kiss people along the route.
"Everything will have to be considered,” Catapang said, according to GMA News. “There's a lot of high-rise buildings … the devil is in the details,” he added. He said that soldiers would be positioned in high-rise buildings along Roxas Boulevard in Manila, a waterfront promenade along Manila Bay. The government said it expects millions of people to flock on the streets to see Pope Francis. Roughly 80 percent of the Philippines’ 98 million people identify as Catholic.
The Catholic leader is expected in the country from Jan. 15-19. He's slated to pay visits to Tacloban City and Palo town on the island province of Leyte, two areas devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. “His Holiness Pope Francis will bring his message of ‘mercy and compassion’ to at least 11 different venues in the province of Leyte and Metro Manila,” according to the pope’s official schedule. He will also hold a Mass in the capital on Sunday, Jan. 18.
His visit hasn’t been without some controversy. T-shirts paying tribute to the pope’s visit were yanked from shelves in December after Catholic leaders described the shirt’s design as “misleading.” The T-shirt depicted the words “No race. No religion. I embrace diversity,” and was meant as a testament to the leader’s reformist stance on certain issues, including divorce and same-sex marriage.