In what was interpreted as a reference to savagery of Isil in Iraq and Syria Pontiff says former Communist country is example to the the world./
By Nick Squires, Tirana/
Pope Francis condemned the “distortion and manipulation” of religious belief by extremists during a one-day visit to Albania in which he held up the tiny Balkan nation as a model of religious harmony.
In what was interpreted as a reference to the savage rule of Isil in Iraq and Syria and the sectarian violence sweeping other parts of the Muslim world, the 77-year-old pontiff said on Sunday that nobody should use God as a “shield” with which to justify “acts of violence and oppression”.
On his first European trip outside Italy, and his first to a Muslim-majority country, 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 leader of the Roman Catholic Church, who recently gave his conditional approval to US air strikes against Isil extremists.
The Vatican said the Pope had chosen to visit relatively obscure Albania because he wanted to highlight the harmony between Christians and Muslims at a time when terrorist groups are twisting religious beliefs and butchering innocent people.
It was also a reflection of his desire to reach out to the neglected “peripheries” of the world, one of the constant themes of his papacy so far.
The Pope has expressed deep concern that Christian communities which have existed in the Middle East for 2,000 years are in danger of being snuffed out forever.
An estimated 250,000 people lined the streets of Tirana, the Albanian capital, as the Pope was driven into the city after a short flight across the Adriatic from Rome.
During a speech in the presidential palace, he contrasted religious intolerance in other parts of the world with the example of Albania, a country of three million people where around 60 per cent are Muslim, 15 per cent Catholic and the rest Christian Orthodox.
“There is a rather beautiful characteristic of Albania, one which gives me great joy: I am referring to the peaceful coexistence and collaboration that exists among followers of different religions,” the Pope said during the first address of his one-day trip to the Balkan nation, where religion was suppressed for decades under the dictator Enver Hoxha.
“The climate of respect and mutual trust between Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims is a precious gift to the country,” he said.
As the Pope was driven through Tirana in a white, open-topped Pope-mobile, crowds cheered and waved Albania’s flag – a double-headed eagle on a blood-red background.
Elderly men wearing fez-like white felt hats stood next to women in traditional, embroidered costumes, as Catholics who had travelled from neighbouring Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro waved their national flags.
Encapsulating the Pope’s message of religious tolerance, one man held up a placard which read “I love the Bible and Koran because I am Albanian.”
Albania, which Hoxha declared the world’s first atheist state in 1967, had emerged from the dark years of dictatorship and re-embraced religious belief, rebuilding churches and mosques that had been destroyed by the Communist regime, the Argentinean Pope said.
Albania offered “an inspiring example” to countries torn apart by sectarian violence and religious hatred.
Referring to the country as “the Land of the Eagles”, he said Albania had suffered greatly under Hoxha’s regime, when hundreds of Catholic priests and Muslim imams were persecuted.
The broad Martyrs of the Nation boulevard down which the Pope travelled was hung with giant photographs of 40 Catholic bishops, priests and seminarians who were murdered by the Stalinist regime or died from torture and mistreatment in labour camps.
More than 1,800 Catholic and Orthodox churches were destroyed or turned into warehouses, cinemas and dance halls under Hoxha’s paranoid, four decade-long rule.
During a visit to Tirana’s St Paul’s Cathedral, the Pope wept when he heard the testimony a priest, 84-year-old Ernesto Troshani, who for 28 years was imprisoned, tortured and subjected to forced labour after refusing to speak out against the Catholic Church.
The Pope, visibly moved by his account, wept and held the priest in a long embrace.
“Today I touched the martyrs,” the pontiff said, adding that he had been “shocked” to read of the extent of the Communist regime’s persecution of religion.
The Pope celebrated Mass in a large square named after Mother Theresa, one of Albania’s most revered national figures.
She worked for decades in the slums of Calcutta and was beatified by Pope John Paul II, putting her one step away from sainthood.
Pope Francis said he had once met the formidable nun, an ethnic Albanian born in Macedonia, at a synod of bishops in Rome in 1994. “I remember thinking, I’m glad she wasn’t my Mother Superior,” he joked with Albanian officials.
Security was tight for the visit, with snipers on rooftops, hundreds of police officers controlling the crowds and frequent bag checks.
But the Vatican played down warnings by the Iraqi ambassador to the Holy See that Isil might be plotting to kill the Pope after he spoke out about the abuses perpetrated by the extremist organisation.
There were “no particular reasons for concern” for the Pope’s security, said Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
It was the fourth international trip of Francis’s papacy, after visits to Brazil, the Holy Land and South Korea. He is scheduled to visit Turkey in November.(Credit- The Telegraph)
Caption: Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he arrives at the Holy Mass in Tirana Photo: ARMANDO BABANI/EPA