Pope Francis warned during a visit to Albania on Sunday that religion can never be used to justify violence, making apparent reference to the bloodshed wreaked by the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
“Let no one consider themselves to be the ‘armour’ of God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression,” the pontiff said in speech at the presidential palace in Tirana in front of Albania’s leaders.
“May no one use religion as a pretext for actions against human dignity and against fundamental rights,” he said.
The 77-year-old spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics made the declaration at the start of a packed one-day visit to majority-Muslim Albania, which he held up as an “inspiring example” of religious harmony.
Authorities in the country stepped up security to its highest level after warnings from Iraq that the IS jihadists could be planning an attack on the pope.
His reception by the general public was enthusiastic, however, with hundreds of thousands of Christians and Muslims thronging the Albanian capital to greet him.
Francis in his speech praised the “respect and mutual trust between Catholics, Orthodox (Christians) and Muslims” in Albania, which he called “a precious gift to the country”.
He stressed that such coexistence was especially important “in these times where an authentic religious spirit is being perverted and where religious differences are being distorted and instrumentalized”.
In a seeming reference to the Islamic State organisation, which espouses a radical and brutal interpretation of Islam to pursue a dream of reviving a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, the pope said the twisting of faith “created dangerous circumstances which led to conflict and violence”.
His packed 11-hour trip to Albania comes at a sensitive time amid turmoil in the Middle East and rising intolerance in Europe.
The Vatican has voiced unusual support for US air strikes in Iraq to defend persecuted Christians there.
At the same time, though, the pope is spreading his message of interfaith tolerance around the world — and doing what he can to attract more devotees to his church.
The Holy See hopes Albania — a country with one of the youngest populations in Europe — will be a vibrant source for converts in a continent gripped by secularism.
It is the second papal visit to Albania in modern times. Pope John Paul II travelled there the year after the collapse of its communist regime in 1992.
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.
Huge crowds of Albanians gathered along Tirana’s main boulevard and the central Mother Teresa Square where the pope was to later celebrate Mass.
Some waved welcome banners while others chanted: “Papa Francesco! Papa Francesco!”
The Argentine pontiff, who loves to mingle with the crowds, travelled in the same open-topped vehicle he uses in Saint Peter’s Square. He stopped on several occasions along the boulevard to shake hands with believers or to take children in his arms.
Hysen Doli, an 85-year-old Muslim who had come to the square with 10 members of his family, told AFP: “We belong to another religion but have come here out of respect to get the pope’s blessing.”
– ‘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 was scheduled to meet the heads of the country’s other religious communities including Muslim, Orthodox, Bektashi, Jewish and Protestant leaders, and to visit orphans.
The pontiff also wanted 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, dozens of priests, seminarians and bishops died in detention or were executed.
Nearly 2,000 Orthodox and Catholic churches were destroyed or transformed into cinemas, theatres and dance halls, according to Francis, who said the successful rebirth of the Catholic faith after such persecution made Albania a place where “I felt like I should go”.
The revival of Catholicism is due in part to the popularity of Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian born in neighbouring Macedonia.
Yet only about 15 percent of the population is Catholic, with Muslims in the majority with 56 percent, and the Orthodox making up 11 percent.
– Heightened security –
The Vatican has insisted it has not increased security for the trip, but Albania’s interior ministry said police have set up 29 checkpoints in downtown Tirana, where most of the pope’s activities were planned.
Some Vatican watchers feared Francis had made himself a target by speaking out against the Islamic State organisation.
Albania last month began sending weapons and ammunition to Kurdish forces fighting IS militants in Iraq, and security sources in the country have dismissed fears that home-grown militants might be planning an attack.