Crowd of 200,000 in Albania hear pope speak of tolerance

Tight security as Pope Francis arrives for first European trip of his pontificate

Pope Francis waves to a poster of the ethnic Albanian missionary Mother Teresa as he is driven through Tirana yesterday. Photograph: Hector Pustina/AP

Pope Francis waves to a poster of the ethnic Albanian missionary Mother Teresa as he is driven through Tirana yesterday. Photograph: Hector Pustina/AP

 

Breaking for a moment from his prepared text, Pope Francis yesterday explained why he had chosen Albania for the first European visit of his pontificate.

In a homily in Tirana’s Mother Teresa Square, the pope paid homage both to the past sufferings and to the present achievements of multi-ethnic Albania, a country which represents nothing if not the “periphery” of both the Catholic faith and recent European experience.

Speaking to a rain-soaked crowd of 200,000 people, the pope referred to the horrors of the country’s 40-year dictatorship under the leadership of the Stalinist Enver Hoxha, saying: “Recalling the decades of atrocious suffering and harsh persecutions against Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims, we can say that Albania was a land of martyrs.

“Many bishops, priests, men and women religious and laity paid for their fidelity with their lives.”

When the pope made reference to the cemetery of Scutari, infamous for being the place where many Catholics were executed by the Hoxha regime, the crowd broke into sustained applause. “I stand spiritually at that wall of the cemetery of Scutari, a symbolic place of the martyrdom of Catholics before the firing squads, and with profound emotion I place the flower of my prayer and of my grateful and undying remembrance.”

Peaceful cohabitation

There are 350,000 Catholics in the country, a small minority compared with the three million people – 60 per cent of the population – who are Muslim.

Speaking to Albanian president Bujar Nishani on his arrival in Tirana yesterday, the pope said: “There is a rather beautiful characteristic of Albania, one which is given great care and attention, and which gives me great joy: I am referring to the peaceful coexistence and collaboration that exists among followers of different religions. The climate of respect and mutual trust between Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims is a precious gift to the country.”

Yesterday’s events inevitably took place in a context of tight security precautions. Fifty armed personnel were on the roofs of the imposing buildings that dominate the square named after the ethnic Albanian missionary St Mother Teresa. Furthermore, with many people travelling from neighbouring Kosovo and Montenegro to attend the pope’s Mass, Albanian police operated tight border controls. Given that just one week ago Iraq’s ambassador to the Holy See, Habeeb Al Sadr, warned of an attempt on the life of the pope by Islamic fundamentalists, police were cautious about those coming from Kosovo and Montenegro.

Jihadists

“Instead, say yes to the culture of dialogue and solidarity . . . That way, you will build a better Albania in a better world.”