Hijacker ‘fears persecution after religious conversion’

A TURKISH army deserter who hijacked a flight to Italy has told prosecutors he was seeking asylum because he fears persecution in his Muslim homeland after his conversion to Christianity and wanted Pope Benedict XVI’s protection.

“It looks like it was an operation which he had planned for some time, the reasons are of religious nature,” Brindisi Prosecutor Giuseppe Giannuzzi said yesterday. The flight landed safely in the southern Italian port city on Tuesday.

“Having taken up the Christian religion, he feared going back to Turkey,” said Mr Giannuzzi, who interrogated the suspect after he surrendered.

Turkish officials have said Hakan Ekinci — aged 28 and a convicted swindler — was being sent back by Albania, where he had been denied asylum, to Turkey aboard the Turkish Airlines Boeing 737-400, with police waiting to arrest him in Istanbul.

The passengers on the flight included four beauty queens — Miss India, Miss Singapore, Miss Malaysia and Miss Philippines — who were returning to east Asia following a competition in Albania.

Italy’s Interior Minister Giuliano Amato told parliament that Ekinci slipped into the cockpit when an attendant opened the door and gave the pilot a note insisting that he had a message to deliver to the Pope and that accomplices aboard another plane would “blow that plane up” if his message didn’t reach the pontiff.

No weapons were found.

Ekinci was interrogated by Italian authorities in a Brindisi jail, his lawyer Vita Cavaliere and the prosecutor said.

His first words to interrogators were “I want to stay in Italy because I’m afraid of going back”, the prosecutor said. Ekinci had demanded to go to Rome because “his aim was to let the Pope know about his religion”.

“He was obsessed with speaking to the Pope, to say that he wanted to be protected, that he had embraced this [Christian] religion,” Mr Giannuzzi said.

Asked about first reports that the hijacking was a protest at Pope Benedict’s recent remarks about Islam and violence, the prosecutor replied: “This is science fiction,” because the Turk “never raised that aspect”.

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