Pope Francis has arrived today in Albania for a packed one-day visit that will spotlight the country as a model of inter-religious harmony, amid turmoil in the Middle East and rising intolerance in Europe.
While the Holy See earlier this year voiced support for US air strikes in Iraq to defend persecuted Christians, Francis has made dialogue between religions a cornerstone of his papacy and will be keen to counter the call for force with a recipe for peace.
Albania tightened security before his arrival, raising the police force alert to its highest level and mobilising special forces across the country amid warnings that Islamic State jihadists could be planning an attack on the Catholic leader.
Yellow and white Vatican flags flew in the main streets of the capital Tirana alongside Albania’s red flag with its black double-headed eagle, while vast portraits of Catholic priests and nuns persecuted under communism were strung across roads.
The trip will be an 11-hour marathon during which the 77-year-old pontiff will meet Albanian President Bujar Nishani, celebrate mass in Tirana’s Mother Teresa square, lunch with bishops, chat with religious leaders and visit orphans.
Francis has said he chose to visit the impoverished Balkan country for his first European trip — rather than one of the big eurozone nations — because it is an example of a land where religions that are often in strife elsewhere cohabit successfully.