Pope Francis drew enthusiastic and prolonged applause when, in his homily at mass in Mother Teresa Square in Tirana, the capital of Albania, attended by some 300,000 people—most of them Catholics but also very many Orthodox and Muslims—he greeted them saying, “May peace be in your homes! May peace reign in your hearts! Peace in your country!”
The 3.2 million inhabitants of this land, 60 percent of whom are Muslim (Sunni and Bektashi), and 32 percent Christian (Catholic and Orthodox), do indeed treasure peace. They managed to maintain it during the 1990s when bitter fighting raged in neighboring Kosovo and other countries in the Balkans along ethnic and religious lines.
They were able to maintain peace because of the great harmony that exists between Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox in “The Land of the Eagle,” as Albania is called. Indeed, as Francis said in the homily at mass, Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims alike suffered martyrdom under the communist persecution in “this land of martyrs” between 1946 and 1991. Indeed one of the main reasons why the Pope came here was to affirm and help consolidate this great inter-religious harmony, and the peace that is one of its most precious fruits.
On the flight from Rome to Tirana, September 21, Francis told the 51 reporters from 10 countries travelling with him that “this people have suffered, so much, so very much, but they had succeeded in securing peace with the contribution of all the different religious communities. This is “a good sign,” he stated; “a good sign not only for Albania but for the whole world too!”
Pope Francis is convinced religions are meant to be a force for peace but he is well aware that they can be manipulated for political reasons and when this happens it can bring great suffering and destroy peace. This happened in the Balkans in the 1990s and it is happening today in the Middle East and Nigeria.
He made this point forcefully at the Presidential Palace—the former Embassy of the Soviet Union—in his first public speech in Tirana on Sunday morning, September 21, where he was given a warm welcome by the country’s Muslim President, Bujar Nishani, and addressed the country’s authorities.
He began by praising “the peaceful coexistence and collaboration that exists” in this land “among the followers of different religions.” He commended in particular “the climate of respect—mutual respect, and mutual trust between Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims” in Albania today, and hailed it as “a precious gift to the country.”
He said this is particularly true in today’s world where at times “an authentic religious spirit is being perverted” and “religious differences are being distorted and manipulated.” When that happens, the Pope said it “creates dangerous circumstances which lead to conflict and violence, rather than being an occasion for open and respectful dialogue, and for a collective reflection on what it means to believe in God and to follow his laws.”
It was obvious that he was referring in particular to the dramatic situation in parts of the Middle East, where the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is distorting and manipulating religion and, as a result, terrorizing and killing many people.
In his speech on this very successful visit where he was cheered wherever he travelled, Pope Francis spoke out strongly and firmly: “Let no one consider themselves to be the ‘shield’ of God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression! May no one use religion as a pretext for actions against human dignity and against the fundamental rights of every man and woman, above all, the right to life and the right of everyone to religious freedom! “
He held up Albania as a model for the whole world because its experience shows clearly that “peaceful and fruitful experience between people of different religions is not only desirable, it is also possible and realistic” and can greatly contribute to peace and human advancement.
He encouraged the Albanian authorities to protect and nourish this precious treasure “by providing an education which respects differences and particular identities” which can lead to dialogue and cooperation “for the good of all.” The Catholic Church by its schools and universities are making a significant contribution to the whole of society in this regard, he noted.
The Argentine Pope returned to this important and highly relevant topic again later in the day when he met the leaders of the five major religious communities in the country—Sunni Muslim, Bektashi Shia, Catholic, Orthodox and Evangelical—at the Catholic University of “Our Lady of Good Counsel.”
He did so after reminding them that even though they belong to different religious communities so “we are all brothers and sisters.” He made clear however that this fact is being undermined in different parts of the world today.
“We cannot deny that intolerance towards those with different religious convictions is a particularly insidious enemy, one which today is being witnessed in various areas around the world,” he told them.
He called on all believers to “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.” This means, he said, “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.”
And, in a message that was destined for an audience far beyond the borders of Albania, as he admitted to reporters on the flight home from Tirana on Sunday evening, Pope Francis declared yet again that “Authentic religion is a source of peace and not of violence! No one must use the name of God to commit violence! To kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege. To discriminate in the name of God is inhuman.”
He encouraged Albanians “to maintain and develop the tradition of good relations among the various religious communities” in their country and urged them “to be united in serving your beloved homeland.” By doing so he said they would continue to be a sign not only for their homeland but also for other countries far beyond its borders by showing that “good relations and fruitful cooperation are truly possible among men and women of different religions.”