Pope Francis arrives in Albania to boosted security presence after threats flagged to Interpol from returning militants trained in Iraq and Syria.
- Pope Francis touches down to red carpet welcome in Albanian capital Tiran
- Albania’s Interior Ministry provides added protection of 2,500 police officers
- Police sniper teams and sniffer dogs used while border patrols also boosted
- Vatican has played down reports of threats to Pope from Muslim militants
- Pope says the country’s inter-religious harmony is an ‘inspiring example!’
Pope Francis has touched down in Albania and begun his 11-hour visit today with security tight amid threats from Islamic State militants. While the Vatican insisted no special measures were being taken, Albania’s Interior Ministry promised ‘maximum’ protection from 2,500 police and beefed-up patrols at border crossings. Two children presented Pope Francis with flowers as he arrived at Tirana’s airport for a red-carpet welcome by Prime Minister Edi Rama.
It was reported 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 Pope Francis. The Vatican has downplayed the reports, and said Pope 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.
Pope Francis denounced how religion has been ‘perverted’ to justify violence. Francis told Prime Minister Edi Rama at the start of his 11-hour visit Sunday that Albania’s inter-religious harmony was an ‘inspiring example’ for the world, showing that Christian-Muslim coexistence was not only possible but beneficial for a country’s development. He said: ‘Let no one consider themselves to be the ‘armor’ of God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression.’ It was Francis’ first visit to a majority Muslim nation since the Islamic State crackdown on Christians in Iraq. During his visit, he will address Albanian authorities and an inter-religious gathering, celebrate Mass in a square named for Albania’s most famous Catholic – Mother Teresa – and greet children cared for by charitable groups. 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. During this time, hundreds of priests and imams were jailed, scores executed. Muslims make up about 59 percent of the population, with Catholics amounting to 10 percent and Orthodox Christians just under that.