by Gjergji Evangjeli
Pope Francis has concluded a one-day visit to Albania on September 21, during which he focused on the character of interreligious coexistence among the country’s three main religions. On September 16, just five days before the visit, the faithful were unsettled by the report of that ISIS intended to assassinate the Pope and that his visit to Albania could provide ISIS with an opportunity to carry out such a plot. Though the vast majority of Albania’s 70% Muslim population is largely westernized, there is a core of radical Islamists within the country, some of which have decided to join forces with ISIS.
This concern, however, was quickly minimized as Muslim Albanians gathered in the Tirana’s historic mosque to hold a prayer service in honor of the Pontiff. Albanian newspapers report that strong security measures were undertaken, but that there was no security concerns through the duration of the visit.
The overarching message of Pope Francis' visit was to highlight and continue to foster the genuine atmosphere of religious coexistence in Albania. After being under the oppression of the Ottoman Empire for about five centuries and, more recently, being under the oppression of a brutal Communist regime, Albanians have found little time for religious intolerance and have historically sought to unite together under a common understanding of love of God and love of country. Pope Francis decided to make this the topic of his address to students, Orthodox and Muslim, as well as Catholic religious leaders gathered in Albania’s Catholic University, Our Lady of Good Council in Tirana. “Whenever adherence to a specific religious tradition gives birth to service that shows conviction, generosity and concern for the whole of society without making distinctions, then there too exists an authentic and mature living out of religious freedom,” he remarked. He noted that religious freedom is in many cases the root for both political and economic growth and a necessary condition for a civil society. The Pope concluded his remarks by saying, “Continue to be a sign for your country, and beyond, that good relations and fruitful cooperation are truly possible among men and women of different religions.”
The Holy Father also paused to comment on the brutal attitude of Albania’s communist regime toward all people of religion, especially Christians. An estimated 2,100 people were directly executed for practicing their religion after Albania was proclaimed to be an atheistic country in 1967. Many more were put in prisons, which routinely included physical and psychological torture. An estimated 1 in 10 Albanians that lived during the fifty years of Communist regime in Albania suffered some sort of punishment for political or religious reasons, including imprisonments, relocations, hard labor, and executions. In addressing the nature of the past in Albania, Pope Francis remarked, “One sees that this people still has memory of their martyrs, of those who have suffered greatly! A people of martyrs,” and commenting on meeting a priest and a nun who survived imprisonment during the Communist regime he simply said, “[T]oday, I was touched by two of them.” The Archdiocese of Tirana is currently preparing documents in favor of the canonization of forty Albanian Catholics who were slain by the Communist regime. Their beatification process was started in 2003 and the documents are nearly ready to be sent to Rome.
The boulevard leading to Mother Teresa Square, where the Pope celebrated Mass along with some 240 priests from Albania and the neighboring countries of Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, was decorated with pictures of the forty Albanian martyrs. The Mass was attended by roughly 400,000 people, with faithful coming from Kosovo, Montenegro, and Macedonia to catch a glimpse of the Pontiff. Father Vincenzo Foca, part of the Franciscan Mission in Albania and the second Master of Ceremonies for the Mass, remarked that they made sure to place young people and sick people toward the front, knowing that Pope Francis would be most interested in addressing them. Following the conclusion of the Mass, the Pope led the crowd in the Angelus prayer and then addressed the young people in the gathering, saying, “I invite you to build your lives on Jesus Christ: the one who builds on Christ builds on rock, because he is always faithful, even if we sometimes lack faith.” He was impressed with the volume of young people eager to greet him and remarked that the young were a sign of hope to Albania.
The Holy Father concluded his visit to Albania by visiting the Centro Betania, which serves as an orphanage in addition to housing hundreds of people with severe physical disabilities. There he also met with representatives of various charitable organizations currently working within Albania. This was the second visit from a Pope to Albania since the 1990’s following Pope St. John Paul II’s 1993 historic visit to Albania, which in many ways served as the kick-starter for the revitalization of the Catholic Church in Albania.