Let no one consider themselves to be the 'armor' of God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression! —Pope Francis
TIRANA, Albania — Pope Francis called Sunday for 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 for the rest of the world.
"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 a half-day visit to Tirana in which he recalled the brutal persecution people of all faiths suffered under communism.
Francis wept when he heard the testimony of one priest, the Rev. Ernest Troshani, 84, who for 28 years was imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to forced labor for refusing to speak out against the Catholic Church as his captors wanted.
"Today I touched the martyrs," Francis said after embracing the man.
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 against the pope 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. Snipers dotted rooftops along the route, military helicopters flew overhead and uniformed Albanian police formed human chains to keep the crowds at bay behind barricades. Francis' own bodyguards stood guard on the back of his car or jogged alongside.
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.
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 Albanian capital's main Boulevard Martyrs of the Nation was decorated for the visit with Albanian and Vatican flags — 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.
One of those who was imprisoned was Troshani, the 84-year-old priest who said he nearly died from the torture inflicted on him by his jailers, who took him on Christmas Eve, 1963 and slated him for execution. He said he was only spared because Hoxha learned that he had forgiven his captors.
"I didn't know that your people had suffered so much," Francis said after embracing Troshani and an 85-year-old nun who recounted how she had kept her faith alive, secretly baptizing children, once even in a roadside canal with her plastic shoe.
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."
Albania's Interior Ministry promised "maximum" protection from 2,500 police forces and beefed-up patrols at border crossings.
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."
Nicole Winfield contributed from Rome. Trisha Thomas contributed from Tirana.