Sunday, September 21, 2014 9:22 am
Pope Francis arrived in Albania on Sunday for a one-day visit that will highlight the mainly-Muslim country as a model of inter-religious harmony, amid turmoil in the Middle East and rising intolerance in Europe.
The pontiff’s plane landed at Tirana’s Mother Teresa airport at 0700 GMT. Authorities stepped up security to its highest level across the Balkan country after warnings from Iraq that Islamic State jihadists could be planning an attack on the Catholic leader.
The trip is the pope’s first official European visit outside of Italy.
Christians and Muslims thronged the Albanian capital Sunday to greet Pope Francis.
The pontiff’s plane landed at Tirana’s Mother Teresa airport at 0700 GMT, where Prime Minister Edi Rama welcomed Francis for his first European visit outside of Italy.
“Albania is a country that has suffered so much,” the pope told journalists on his flight from Rome. “But it has managed to find peace between its different religions, which is a good sign for the world.”
The packed 11-hour trip comes at a sensitive time amid turmoil in the Middle East and rising intolerance in Europe.
Authorities stepped up security to its highest level across the Balkan country after warnings from Iraq that Islamic State jihadists could be planning an attack on the Catholic leader.
Tens of thousands of Albanians — many of them Muslim and Orthodox — had already gathered in Mother Teresa square in central Tirana where the pope will later celebrate Mass. Some waved welcoming banners while others chanted: “Papa Francesco! Papa Francesco!”
Yellow-and-white Vatican flags flew alongside Albanian ones in the main streets of the capital while vast portraits of Catholic priests and nuns persecuted under communism — when Albania became the world’s first atheist state — were strung across roads.
“The Catholic Church in Albania is a martyr church and with the visit of Pope Francis it will be known throughout the world,” said Aida Agustini, 51, one of the faithful waiting in the square.
Beside her Muslim Hysen Doli, 85, who had come to the square with 10 members of his family, said, “We belong to another religion but have come here out of respect to get the pope’s blessing.”
Francis had said he chose to visit the impoverished country for his first European trip outside Italy because of the example it set of religious co-existence.
While the Vatican earlier this year voiced support for US air strikes in Iraq to defend persecuted Christians, Francis has made dialogue between religions a cornerstone of his papacy.
– ‘We can all work together!’ –
In August, Francis said that his presence in Albania “will be a way of saying to everyone, ‘See, we can all work together!'”
He will later have meeting with the heads of the country’s other religious communities including Muslim, Orthodox, Bektashi, Jewish and Protestant leaders.
The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics also wants to honour those who suffered under former communist dictator Enver Hoxha, during whose rule priests and imams were persecuted and many churches and mosques razed.
Between 1945 and 1985, 111 priests, 10 seminarians and seven bishops died in detention or were executed