Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi Tuesday freed Agca from a life sentence for the 1981 shooting in St. Peter's Square in which the pope was badly wounded and Agca was captured immediately.
Agca reportedly greeted the news of his pardon with the words: "This is a dream ... I cannot believe it." But Agca will not go free. He was quickly flown to Turkey, where he faces prison time for a killing that took place before the attack on the pope.
John Paul II met the Turkish gunman in his prison cell a year and a half after the attack and forgave him, reports CBS News Correspondent Allen Pizzey. The content of their conversation has never been made public, although for some time the pope has been telling Italian authorities that he favored clemency.
The Vatican said in May that the assassination attempt had been foretold in a vision seen by three peasant children in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917the so-called "third secret" of Fatima. The pope credits the Virgin Mary for sparing his life.
"This decision had been accepted, has been received with joy by the Holy Father," said Vatican spokesman Joaquim Navarro-Valls. "That the granting of the pardon comes during Holy Year celebrations makes the pope's personal satisfaction even more intense."
On May 13, 1981, Agca pulled a trigger twice as John Paul rode smiling and waving in an open car through excited throngs of pilgrims in St. Peter's Square.
One shot hit the pope's abdomen, barely missing vital organs. Doctors say the wound forever weakened the pope, then an athletic hiker and skier, now a frail, stooped 80-year-old suffering from symptoms of Parkinson's disease.
Agca has never revealed the whole truth about the shooting. He told investigators he acted at the instigation of the Bulgarian secret service and the Soviet KGB. But Italian courts ruled there was insufficient evidence to support the accusations, and Agca himself went on to give widely varying accounts of the assassination attempt.
He purposefully feigned insanity in court to cast doubt on the credibility of his own stories, a prosecutor said Tuesday.
"This extinguishes the last hope of reaching the truth," prosecutor Antonio Marini said of the pardon and extradition.
Prosecutor Rosario Priore, who investigated the alleged conspiracy between Bulgarian agents and Agca, agreed that the truth has never emerged.
Nevertheless, Priore insisted, the pardon was the correct move.
"It's the only possible act to take," Priore said. "You can't keep people in prison just to make them talk."
Agca carried out the attack after escaping from prison in Turkey, where he was being held in the killing of a Turkish newspaper editor.
Turkey later convicted him in absentia and sentenced him to death. A 1991 amnesty reduced th sentence to 10 years in prison.
In a recent interview Agca said that if he is ever freed he would lead a holy life dedicated to poverty and chastity.