TIRANA, Albania—Pope Francis arrived Sunday in Albania on his first European trip, designed to highlight the Balkan nation’s path from a brutal communist state where religion was banned to a model of Christian-Muslim coexistence for a world witnessing conflict in God’s name.
Security was tight for Francis’ 11-hour visit to the majority Muslim nation amid reported threats from Islamic militants. While the Vatican insisted no special measures were being taken, Albania’s Interior Ministry promised “maximum” protection from 2,500 police forces and beefed-up patrols at border crossings.
Two children presented Francis with flowers as he arrived at Tirana’s airport for a red-carpet welcome by Prime Minister Edi Rama.
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. Hundreds of priests and imams were jailed, scores executed.
During his brief visit, Francis is expected to highlight 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 per cent of the population, with Catholics amounting to 10 per cent and Orthodox Christians just under that.
Francis’ 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 Francis 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.
Italian news reports, citing unnamed sources, have said Albanian law enforcement had flagged to Interpol concerns that Muslim militants who trained in Iraq and Syria had returned and might pose a threat to Francis.
The Vatican has downplayed the reports, and said Francis would use the same open-topped vehicle he uses in St. Peter’s Square when he greets Tirana’s crowds. That said, even at the Vatican security has been beefed-up in recent days: More barricades and police were out in force during Francis’ weekly general audience this past week and Italian media reported security had been doubled.
Albanian police said they had the situation under control, though security was tight Sunday: People attending the pope’s Mass were told to avoid wearing heavy clothing since they would be checked by police and not to bring bags, suitcases or glass bottles.
“There is no threat to the pope’s security. We have undertaken all the measures and everything will go well,” police chief Artan Didi told reporters after a meeting with Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri on final security arrangements.
During his visit, Francis will address Albanian authorities and an interreligious gathering, celebrate Mass in a square named for Albania’s most famous Catholic—Mother Teresa—and greet children cared for by charitable groups.