Pope's Swiss Guard may allow women after 500-year ban

Tue May 5, 2009 1:11pm EDT
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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - After more than five centuries protecting popes, the Swiss Guard may consider opening the ranks of the world's smallest army to women, its commander said Tuesday.

"I can imagine them for one role or another. Certainly we can think about this," Daniel Anrig, who took over the post late last year, told Italian television program "Studio Aperto."

Anrig's remarks could represent a major change in position regarding the future of the elite corps composed entirely of 19- to 30-year-old Catholic men hailing from the Swiss Army.

Anrig's predecessor argued that mixing the sexes could be more trouble than it was worth and cited cramped Vatican barracks as another reason for excluding women.

Asked about difficulties like cramped quarters, Anrig responded: "Any problems can be resolved."

The Swiss Guard was founded on January 22, 1506, when 150 Swiss mercenaries marched to Rome to serve under Pope Julius II, known as "the warrior Pope."

Today, the guard numbers around 110 men. Clad in flamboyant striped uniforms, the guard's role is largely ceremonial and many of its members still carry around a medieval weapon -- the halberd, which is a combination of spear and battle axe.

Wednesday, the Vatican will hold an annual ceremony commemorating the 140 guards killed in the May 6, 1527 sacking of Rome. The surviving members saved the life of Pope Clement VII.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart)

<p>A Swiss Guard is seen guarding the entrance to a private area at the Vatican March 16, 2008. REUTERS/John Goh</p>