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Should the Swiss Papal Guard be abolished?

Turning your back to the pope was banned until a few years ago (Swiss Guard) Guardia svizzera (

There is no justification for an all-Swiss army in the Vatican, former Christian Democrat parliamentarian Jacques Neirynck tells swissinfo.

As the Swiss Guard marks its 500th anniversary, Neirynck calls for its modernisation. He says that the pope’s security could be guaranteed in other ways.

The Swiss Papal Guard is small army of Swiss men tasked with protecting the pope – a duty they have performed for five centuries.

Soldiers carry ancient halberds – a combined spear and battle axe – and wear distinctive Renaissance-style uniforms.

Criticism of the Swiss Guard is rare indeed as many consider it a timeless symbol of the Vatican State and of Swiss tradition. Neirynck is one of the few dissenting voices.

swissinfo: You are one of the few people who has repeatedly called for the Swiss Guard to be abolished. Why?

Jacques Neirynck: My criticism is not directed so much at the Swiss Guard as at the very existence of the Vatican. I believe that the Catholic Church – just like any other religion – should not have an independent state – and much less an army.

There’s no need for a military guard to guarantee the pope’s security. Civilian security forces or the Vatican’s police force could perform the same task in a much more secure and professional manner.

swissinfo: Do you mean to say that the Swiss Guard is inefficient?

J.N.: I have no objection to the people entering the Vatican being monitored, but it doesn’t have to be an army that does the job. Ordinary ushers would be perfectly adequate.

However, when it comes to safeguarding the pope, the Swiss Guard has demonstrated that it is not always up to the task. The attempt to assassinate the Pope [John Paul II] by the Turk Ali Agca in 1981 is one striking example. The guards, who are obliged to respect an ancient medieval rule that prevents them from turning their backs to the pope, were evidently unable to make out the man in the crowd in time. And the arms they carry – an ancient halberd – are certainly not the most efficient…

Since that incident, the Vatican has fortunately taken some steps. The guards now undergo better security training, and I hope that they know how to put it into practice. They should not forget that their real task is to protect the pope and not to parade around in their splendid uniforms as they seem to do all too frequently.

swissinfo: The uniform also has a symbolic meaning because it recalls the past of the Swiss Guard and its capacity to survive over the centuries. Switzerland doesn’t seem willing to relinquish this tradition.

J.N.: I don’t deny that the Swiss Guard and its appearance are part of a long tradition, but continuing this tradition in today’s world is mere folklore. It was perhaps the case in the past that the Swiss had to serve as mercenaries in armies all over the world in order to make a living. But that’s no longer the case.

I’m not surprised that other people in Switzerland are not raising objections to this. We have a soft spot for traditions. And elsewhere in the world nobody dares criticise the pope’s soldiers. Not so much out of respect, perhaps, but more because they are considered a folkloric element. But it’s precisely this quaint image of the Swiss Guard that bothers me: I’m a Catholic and I consider religion to be a serious issue, not just a matter for dressing up in costume.

swissinfo: Is this true of the young men who join the Swiss Guard?

J.N.: No, I believe that most of them are men with high ideals who decide to join the Papal Guard because they are true believers and are convinced that they are carrying out an important task. But, once they arrive in Rome, they find themselves confronted with quite a different reality: from one parade to the next, they struggle to understand what their real purpose is. This type of situation can only be harmful and create tension.

Let us remember the drama that was played out a few years ago in the Vatican. Before committing suicide, guard Cédric Tornay killed his commanding officer Alois Estermann and his wife Gladys Meza Romero merely because he had been passed over for promotion to the rank of corporal. This is an incident that gives pause for reflection, as it is symptomatic of the malaise that dogs the guard.

swissinfo: The members of the Swiss Guard have always been Swiss. Is this an inflexible rule?

J.N.: I certainly hope not! I don’t see why young men – and women too, for that matter – of other nationalities shouldn’t be given the opportunity to join. Catholicism is a world religion, so the soldiers in the Papal Guard should come from all over the world – a little like the people who make up the United Nations.

Many Swiss consider this “monopoly” to be an honour and a sign of recognition on the part of the pope towards his soldiers who have demonstrated such tremendous loyalty over the centuries. However, I have my doubts: the Swiss Guard has existed for five centuries, but there has never been a Swiss pope. Have we perhaps been restricted to performing the most humble task and considered unworthy of assuming the “supreme function”?

swissinfo-interview: Anna Passera

Jacques Neirynck, a naturalised Swiss, was born in Brussels on August 17, 1931.
Professional background: engineer, university professor, journalist, author.
He represented the centre-right Christian Democrats from 1999 to 2003 in the House of Representatives.
His latest book is entitled “Un pape suisse” (A Swiss Pope).

The Swiss Papal Guard was established in 1506 by Pope Julian II.

It comprises just 110 men and is the smallest and oldest army in the world. Its existence is rarely called into question.

The pope’s soldiers, in their Renaissance-style uniforms, are generally considered to be a symbol of the Vatican, as well as being part of Swiss tradition.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR