TIRANA

Pope Francis warned during a visit to Albania on Sunday that religion can never be used to justify violence, making apparent reference to the bloodshed wreaked by the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

‘Let no one consider themselves to be the ‘armour’ of God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression,’ the pontiff said in speech at the presidential palace in Tirana in front of Albania’s leaders. ‘May no one use religion as a pretext for actions against human dignity and against fundamental rights,’ he said. The 77-year-old spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics made the declaration at the start of a packed one-day visit to majority-Muslim Albania, which he held up as an ‘inspiring example’ of religious harmony.

Authorities in the country stepped up security to its highest level after warnings from Iraq that the IS militants could be planning an attack on the pope. His reception by the general public was enthusiastic, however, with hundreds of thousands of Christians and Muslims thronging the Albanian capital to greet him. Francis in his speech praised the ‘respect and mutual trust between Catholics, Orthodox (Christians) and Muslims’ in Albania, which he called ‘a precious gift to the country’.

He stressed that such coexistence was especially important ‘in these times where an authentic religious spirit is being perverted and where religious differences are being distorted and instrumentalised’. In a seeming reference to 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, the pope said the twisting of faith ‘created dangerous circumstances which led to conflict and violence’.

His packed 11-hour trip to Albania comes 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, though, the pope is spreading his message of interfaith tolerance around the world - and doing what he can to attract more devotees to his church.

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. It is the second papal visit to Albania in modern times. Pope John Paul II travelled there the year after the collapse of its communist regime in 1992. Yellow-and-white Vatican flags flew alongside Albanian ones in the main streets of the capital while vast portraits of Catholic priests and nuns persecuted under communism - when Albania became the world’s first atheist state - were strung across roads.

Huge crowds of Albanians gathered along Tirana’s main boulevard and the central Mother Teresa Square where the pope was to later celebrate Mass. Hysen Doli, an 85-year-old Muslim who had come to the square with 10 members of his family, told AFP: ‘We belong to another religion but have come here out of respect to get the pope’s blessing.’