LONDON — An alleged threat to Pope Benedict XVI led to the pre-dawn arrests of five men in London on Friday on the second day of the pontiff’s trip to Britain, police said. The Vatican said the pope was calm and so far planned no changes to his schedule.
The men, between the ages of 26 and 50, were detained under the Terrorism Act at a business in central London. They are being questioned at a London police station and have not been charged. Police said an initial search of the business and other properties did not uncover any hazardous items.
Police said they received information about a potential threat against the pope overnight, prompting the armed operation to arrest the men early Friday morning.
Police declined to say whether the men were British or give details of their ethnicity, but there was no indication that it was a threat involving national security. Protesters and activists have previously been arrested under the country’s terrorism laws during high-profile events in Britain such as economic summits and state visits.
The pope’s visit has divided opinion in officially Protestant, highly secular Britain. The trip has been overshadowed by disgust over the Catholic Church’s clerical abuse scandal and opposition from secularists and those opposed to the church’s stance against homosexuality and its ban on using condoms to fight the spread of AIDS.
News of the arrests came as the pope was meeting representatives of other religions, including Muslims and Jews, and stressing the need for mutual respect, tolerance and freedom to follow one’s conscience even after conversion from another religion.
The Vatican said the pope was informed of the arrests and was pleased he could stick to his schedule.
“We have compete trust in the police,” Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters. “The police are taking the necessary measures. The situation is not particularly dangerous.
“The pope is happy about this trip and is calm.”
The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales said they had “absolute confidence” in the security operation to protect the pope and the public.
The pope’s security on this trip has been visibly higher than on previous foreign grips, and Vatican officials have acknowledged that Britain represents a higher security threat than the other European countries Benedict has visited this year, including Portugal, Malta and Cyprus.
Benedict travels with his own security detail, headed by chief papal bodyguard Domenico Giani. Benedict’s white, bulletproof Popemobile is flanked by eight to 10 dark-suited bodyguards who jog alongside, scanning crowds for potential threats as the pope waves to well-wishers from inside.
There have been no major known attempts against Benedict; his predecessor Pope John Paul II survived an assassination attempt in 1981.
Benedict was knocked down at Christmas Eve Mass in 2009 by a mentally unstable woman who jumped the security barricade inside St. Peter’s Basilica. In 2007, a man jumped the barricade in St. Peter’s Square and grabbed the back of the pope’s vehicle before being pushed to the ground by guards.
Benedict was nearly 30 minutes late for his first event Friday morning, with the Vatican attributing the delay at the time to logistical problems.
The pope was given a boisterous welcome by thousands of cheering Catholic schoolchildren at a suburban London college, where he urged young people to ignore the shallow temptations of today’s “celebrity culture.”
Benedict also told their teachers to make sure to provide them with a trusting, safe environment — the second time in as many days that he has referred to the church sex abuse scandal. On Thursday, the pope acknowledged that the Roman Catholic Church had failed to act quickly or decisively enough to remove pedophile priests from ministry.
“Our responsibility toward those entrusted to us for their Christian formation demands nothing less,” Benedict said. “Indeed, the life of faith can only be effectively nurtured when the prevailing atmosphere is one of respectful and affectionate trust.”
The pontiff will meet Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams later Friday, head of the Anglican Communion, in a display of unity between the divided Christian churches.
He also will address British politicians, businessmen and cultural leaders in Westminster Hall, where he is expected to press the need for faith issues to help shape public policy.
On Saturday, he is due to address thousands of pilgrims at an open-air service in London’s Hyde Park.
Polls in Britain indicate widespread dissatisfaction with the way Benedict has handled the sex abuse scandal, with Catholics nearly as critical of him as the rest of the population. Benedict’s four-day visit to the U.K. has been clouded by the abuse scandal, as well as by opposition to many of his policies and widespread indifference to his presence in this deeply secular country.
Catholics are a minority in Britain at 10 percent, and up until the early 19th century they endured harsh persecution and discrimination and were even killed for their faith. King Henry VIII broke with Rome in the 16th century after he was denied a marriage annulment.