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Pope's guards have been loyal for 500 years

Members of the Swiss Guard remember their dead brothers-in-arms

(Keystone)

The first of the celebrations marking the 500th anniversary of the Papal Swiss Guard has taken place in Lucerne with ceremonial pomp.

Justice Minister Christoph Blocher made the keynote speech, commending the guards - who are responsible for the pope's safety - on their loyalty and for being true to their word.

Blocher added that the men were exemplary, saying that they typified Christian values.

The very fact that the Swiss Guard was celebrating 500 years in business showed that they had withstood the test of time, Blocher said.

The security force came into being on June 21, 1505, when the then Pope Julius II asked the neighbouring region to quickly send 200 soldiers to protect the Vatican Palace.

The first 150 guards set off that autumn for Rome, arriving in January 1506.

This arrival date is regarded as the institution's birthday.

During Saturday's festivities, a memorial plaque was unveiled at a local church, citing the beginnings of what was known as the Gwardiknechte in the 16th century.

History lesson

For his part, Blocher cited from history to demonstrate the guards' ability to keep their promise.

He referred to the Sacco di Roma or sack of Rome on May 6, 1527, when nearly 150 guards lost their lives in battle with soldiers of the Emperor Charles V, who looted the city.

Many of those who died came from Zurich and were Protestants but they still kept to their word to protect the pope, stressed Blocher.

The Swiss Guard still mark this date every year by swearing in new recruits, who vow to defend the Vatican and the pope with their lives.

Today

The current Swiss Guard is made up of 110 men, who have to serve at least two years. They are contracted to protect the papal residency and accompany the pontiff when he travels abroad.

Swiss law prohibits its citizens from military engagement outside the country but an exception is made for the pontifical security force.

The government regards these men as a house guard with policing tasks.

As for Blocher, he told the audience in Lucerne on Saturday that his four-year-old niece had asked him if he wanted to join the Swiss Guard.

Alas, he would not be able to, he explained to the child.

Notwithstanding the fact that he was not a Catholic, Blocher said that he was over the age limit as he was more than 30 years old and too short.

Her reply: "You just need to grow a bit more!"

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

The Swiss Guard has a maximum of 110 members.
Candidates have to be Swiss, Catholic, under 30 and at least 174cm tall.
Recruits must be single but can marry later.
Payment is SFr1,800 per month.
Guards must serve at least two years.

end of infobox

In brief

The Swiss Guard will have clocked up 500 years of service in January 2006, but the celebrations kicked off in Lucerne on September 24, 2005.

The January date marks the day when 150 Swiss soldiers arrived in Rome in 1506 to begin protecting the papal residency, after receiving a request from Pope Julius II for help.

end of infobox


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