ROME —After the Vatican said the third secret of Fatima foretold the 1981 assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II, the Turkish gunman in that attack proclaimed himself an ''unwitting instrument'' in a divine plan.
Mehmet Ali Agca, who is serving a life sentence in an Italian prison for shooting and seriously wounding the pope in 1981, said through his lawyer that he felt relieved from the weight of responsibility by the disclosure of the secret.
''I was an unwitting instrument in a mysterious design: Now I know this with certainty,'' Agca was quoted as saying by his lawyer, Marina Magistrelli. Agca said he would further explain his thoughts in a letter to the pope on the occasion of the pontiff's 80th birthday May 18.
Magistrelli said Agca had watched TV coverage of the pope's Mass at Fatima, Portugal, May 13 when Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, announced that the ''third secret'' said to have been revealed by Mary to three children in 1917 involved a prediction of a war waged by atheistic systems against the church.
The message also referred to a ''bishop clothed in white'' who ''falls to the ground, apparently dead under a burst of gunfire,'' Cardinal Sodano said. He said Pope John Paul II believes this foretold his being shot and seriously wounded in St. Peter's Square May 13, 1981 -- the feast of Our Lady of Fatima.
The pope met with Agca in his prison cell in 1983 and forgave the gunman. On that occasion, Agca later recounted, he asked the pope about the third secret of Fatima, but the pope would not discuss it.
Later, Agca began claiming that he was part of a divine design connected with the Fatima apparitions. He also made other claims: that he was Jesus Christ, that he was an angel, and that he was sent by God to announce the end of the world.
Agca at one point claimed that the papal shooting was carried out on the orders of Bulgarian intelligence officials. Bulgarian and Turkish defendants were acquitted in 1986, in a trial that featured incoherent outbursts by Agca.
Agca later said the Bulgarian connection was a fabrication of Italian intelligence officials who had promised him early release if he went along with their plan.
In recent years, Agca has said he acted on his own in shooting the pope. Agca, a Muslim, had publicly threatened to kill the pontiff in 1979 when the pope visited Turkey; in a letter to several Turkish newspapers, he called the pope a ''crusader commander'' sent by Western imperialists.
After Agca shot the pope in 1981, he was immediately wrestled to the ground and arrested. A letter found in his hotel room said he had committed the act to demonstrate the ''imperialistic crimes'' of the Soviet Union and the United States.
For several years, Agca and his relatives have pressured Italian justice officials to release him, saying he has served long enough. Now 42 years old, Agca would be eligible for conditional release in 2005.
Italian press reports quoted Agca as saying that if released, he would travel to Fatima to pray for 10 days.
That is an unlikely scenario, since Turkish authorities want Agca back in their country to serve a life sentence for the killing of a Turkish journalist in 1979. Vatican officials have said they have no objections to Agca's early release from his Italian sentence and his return to a Turkish prison.
— John Thavis, Catholic News Service