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Sep 21, 2014 11:48 AM

Pope in Albania urges Muslims to condemn extremism

The Associated Press

TIRANA, Albania (AP) Pope Francis called Sunday for moderate Muslims and all religious leaders to condemn Islamic extremists who "pervert" religion to justify violence, as he visited Albania and held up the Balkan nation as a model for interfaith harmony.

"To kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege. To discriminate in the name of God is inhuman," Francis told representatives of Albania's Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic communities during his half-day visit to Tirana.

Security was unusually tight for the pope's first trip to a majority Muslim country since the Islamic State group began its crackdown on Christians in Iraq and announced its aim to extend its self-styled caliphate to Rome. The trip was preceded by reports that militants who trained in Iraq and Syria had returned and might pose a threat.

The Vatican insisted it had no reports of specific threats and that no special security measures were taken. But Francis' interactions with the crowds were much reduced compared to his previous foreign trips. His open-topped vehicle sped down Tirana's main boulevard, not stopping once for Francis to greet the faithful as is his norm.

He only kissed a few babies at the very end of the route, and then left quickly after his Mass ended without stopping. Snipers dotted rooftops along the route and uniformed Albanian police formed human chains to keep the crowds at bay behind barricades, while Francis' own bodyguards stood watch, perched on the back of his car or jogging alongside.

Albania's Interior Ministry promised "maximum" protection from 2,500 police forces and beefed-up patrols at border crossings.

In his opening speech, Francis told President Bujar Nishani, Albanian officials and the diplomatic corps that Albania's interreligious harmony was an "inspiring example" for the world, showing that Christian-Muslim coexistence wasn't only possible but beneficial for a country's development.

"This is especially the case in these times in which authentic religious spirit is being perverted by extremist groups," he said.

"Let no one consider themselves to be the 'armor' of God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression!" Francis said in the wood-paneled reception room of Tirana's presidential palace.

Muslims make up about 59 percent of Albania's population, with Catholics amounting to 10 percent and Orthodox Christians just under that, according to the country's official figures. Muslims and Christians govern together and interfaith families are common, thanks to the near-quarter century when religion was banned under communism.

Later in the day, addressing Muslim and other religious leaders at a Catholic university, Francis said religious intolerance was a "particularly insidious enemy" that was evident in many parts of the world today.

"All believers must be particularly vigilant so that, in living out with conviction our religious and ethical code, we may always express the mystery we intend to honor," he said. "This means that all those forms which present a distorted use of religion must be firmly refuted as false since they are unworthy of God or humanity."

Francis has said it was legitimate to use force to stop the Islamic extremists, but that the international community should be consulted on how to do so. Last month, the Vatican's office with relations with Muslims issued a strong statement condemning the Islamic State's atrocities and calling on religious leaders, particularly Muslims, to use their influence to stop them. The extremists' advance is of particular concern to the Vatican given the exodus of faithful from lands where Christian communities have existed for 2,000 years.

The capital's main Boulevard Martyrs of the Nation was decorated with Albanian and Vatican flags for Francis' visit as well as giant portraits 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 and scores executed before the regime fell in 1990.

Francis paid tribute to these martyrs and those from other faiths, saying they showed witness to their faith even under persecution.

"Recalling the decades of atrocious suffering and harsh persecutions against Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims, we can say that Albania was a land of martyrs," he said during the Mass, held in the square named after the country's most famous Catholic Mother Teresa.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, insisted that no special security measures were taken, and said Francis didn't stop to greet the crowd as usual because he didn't want to fall behind schedule.

On previous foreign trips, including his last one in South Korea, Francis frequently has run behind schedule because he spends so much time greeting crowds.

It didn't seem to matter to the Albanians who turned out, many of whom traveled from the north for what the prime minister said was a "rock star" visit that gave the world a different view of Albania.

"Don't ask for names because we are all Albanians today," said Nikolla, who traveled about 80 kilometers south from Lezha to Tirana with a group of teenage friends for the event. "All love God the same. We are a mixed (religious) group and came together to see the pope."

Francis' decision to visit tiny, poor Albania before any major European capital was 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.

Albania's president, Nishani, thanked Francis for making the country his first European destination, saying it was a historic event for all Albanians.

"There is no intolerance, extremism among us but reciprocal respect inherited from generation to generation," he said. "From an atheist country, we have turned into a country of religious freedom."


Nicole Winfield contributed from Rome. Trisha Thomas contributed from Tirana.


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