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Pope Francis: Religion can never justify violence

He said that Albania was an “inspiring example” of religious harmony.

POPE FRANCIS WARNED during a visit to Albania today that religion can never be used to justify violence, making apparent reference to the bloodshed wreaked by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

The 77-year-old pontiff said majority-Muslim Albania was an “inspiring example” of religious harmony, as hundreds of thousands thronged the streets of the capital Tirana to greet him.

Albania visit

Albania Pope AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

In a speech to chiefs of Albania’s religious communities — including Muslim, Orthodox Bektashi, Jewish and Protestant leaders — Francis took aim at extremists he accused of perverting religion for their own ends.

“No one must use the name of God to commit violence,” the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics said at the Catholic University.

To kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege. To discriminate in the name of God is inhuman.

He raised the same theme in an earlier speech to government officials, during which he praised the peaceful coexistence of Albania’s Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims, labelling it “a precious gift to the country”.

He said it was especially important “in these times where an authentic religious spirit is being perverted and where religious differences are being distorted”.

Islamic State

The remarks were widely seen as a reference to Nigeria’s Boko Haram militants as well as 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.

“Let no one consider themselves to be the ‘armour’ of God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression,” the pontiff told officials at the presidential palace in Tirana.

Local authorities stepped up security after warnings from Iraq that the IS jihadists could be planning an attack on the pope, although the Holy See downplayed such concerns.

The pontiff’s 11-hour trip to Albania came 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, the pope is spreading his message of interfaith tolerance around the world.

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.

‘Land of martyrs’

Albania Pope AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Yellow-and-white Vatican flags flew alongside Albanian ones in Tirana’s main streets while vast portraits of Catholic priests and nuns persecuted under Communism — when Albania became the world’s first atheist state — were strung across roads.

Some believers waved welcome banners while others chanted:

Papa Francesco! Papa Francesco!

While celebrating Mass at the central Mother Teresa square under light rain, the pope honoured those who suffered under former Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled from 1945 until his death in 1985. During Hoxha’s rule scores of priests and imams were executed or persecuted while many churches and mosques were razed.

“Albania was a land of martyrs,” Francis told the crowd of up to 300,000.

Nearly 2,000 Orthodox and Catholic churches were destroyed or transformed into cinemas, theatres and dance halls under Hoxha, according to Francis, who earlier 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 in the country 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.

Albania Pope AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

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 to shake hands with believers or to take children in his arms. After the mass he also briefly walked through the crowd.

Heightened security

Despite some speculation about a possible IS attack, the Vatican said at midday today that there were no “particular security problems.”

However, Albania’s interior ministry said police had set up 29 checkpoints in downtown Tirana, where most of the pope’s activities were taking place.

Some Vatican watchers feared Francis had made himself a target by speaking out against the Islamic State organisation.

Albania began sending weapons and ammunition to Kurdish forces fighting IS militants in Iraq, and security sources in the country have dismissed concern that home-grown militants might be planning an attack.

- © AFP, 2014

Read: Security upped at the Vatican amid fears of an attack>

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