The former Communist country, which was once declared the world’s first “atheist state”, was an example to the the world, said the pontiff.
In his first trip to a Muslim-majority country, Pope Francis held up Albania as a model of religious harmony compared to the sectarian savagery sweeping across the Middle East. Large crowds lined the broad avenues of Tirana, the capital, on Sunday as the Pope was driven into the centre of the city after a short flight from Rome. The Pope said that “authentic religious spirit is being perverted” in many parts of the world and that “religious differences are being distorted and manipulated.”
That had led to “conflict and violence”, said the Pope, who recently gave his conditional approval to US air strikes against Isil extremists persecuting Christians and other minorities in Iraq. He contrasted religious intolerance with the example of Albania, a country of three million people where around 60 per cent are Muslim, 10 per cent are Catholic and the rest are Christian Orthodox.
During his visit, he addressed Albanian authorities and held an interreligious gathering, as we write Pope is holding a Mass in a square named for Albania’s most famous Catholic – Mother Teresa – and greet children cared for by charitable groups. The capital’s main Boulevard Martyrs of the Nation was decorated with Albanian and Vatican flags, as well as pictures of 40 Catholic priests who were persecuted or executed under Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, who declared Albania the world’s first atheist state in 1967. During this time, hundreds of priests and imams were jailed, scores executed.
Pope Francis highlighted the experience of these martyrs and how Albania survived communist repression to become a model of interfaith harmony, where Christians and Muslims live and govern together. Muslims make up about 59 percent of the population, with Catholics amounting to 10 percent and Orthodox Christians just under that.
The Pope’s decision to visit tiny Albania before any major European capital is in keeping with his desire for the Catholic Church to go to the ‘periphery’. Albania is seeking European Union membership and his visit comes just a few weeks before he delivers a major speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. The visit also affords him a chance to visit a majority Muslim nation at a time when Christians are being persecuted, killed and forced from their homes by the Islamic State group in northern Iraq. The Vatican has voiced mounting concern about the exodus of Christians from lands where Christian communities have existed for 2,000 years.
Last month the Pope, who has often condemned the concept of war in God’s name, said it would be legitimate for the international community to use force to stop ‘unjust aggression’ by Islamic State militants who have killed or displaced thousands of people in Iraq and Syria, many of them Christians.