ROME — In many ways, Pope Francis’ choice of Albania for his first visit to a European nation outside Italy seems enigmatic. He’ll land in the capital city of Tirana on Sunday for a quick one-day stop, and the obvious question heading in is: “Why?”
Albania is the least well-known state in Europe, the only country on the continent with a Muslim majority. Its population is less than 3 million, with half of those people working in an agricultural sector that generates only 10 percent of the country’s income.
The pontiff has already said that the obvious explanation for the outing — that Albania symbolizes his outreach to the marginalized of the world — is wrong.
“Some say it’s in the pope’s style to make the peripheries his starting point for everything, but that’s not why I’m going,” he said during remarks to reporters on his return flight from a trip to South Korea in August.
Instead, Francis has said he wants to lift up this obscure Balkan state as a model of peaceful coexistence in a world torn by strife.
After the end of the 40-year rule of former Communist dictator Enver Hoxha in the 1980s, Albanians formed a national unity government bringing together Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and Catholics, a partnership that Francis finds inspiring.
“I decided to visit this country because it has suffered greatly as a result of a terrible atheist regime and is now realizing the peaceful co-existence of its various religious components,” he said during a Sept. 17 General Audience.
In 1967, Albania became the first, and only, country on earth to constitutionally declare the non-existence of God. Hoxha, a staunch Stalinist, approved a constitution that proclaimed that “the State does not recognize any religion, and promotes atheism to implant a materialistic vision of the world in its people.”
Consequentially, every religious symbol in Albania was prohibited and sacred books such as the Bible, the Torah, and the Qu’ran were burned. More than 1,800 churches, temples, and mosques were torn down, while others where transformed into sport centers, gun deposits, or barns. The public display of religious symbolism, considered a crime under Hoxha’s constitution, was punishable by a prison term or a death sentence.
Yet even under the most far-reaching state-sponsored atheism in the world, the imprint of faith was never far from Albanian consciousness. Ironically, when Francis lands in Tirana on Sunday, he’ll do so at an airport named for a Catholic nun: Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was born in Albania in 1910.
As a Vatican spokesman put it, “In Albania, Mother Teresa is a national hero as well as a figure of extraordinary Christian holiness.”
Francis may want to point to Albania as a case study in the possibilities for peace, but the run-up to the brief trip has been dominated by fears of violence. Albania’s sizable Muslim community includes some sympathizers with the self-declared ISIS caliphate in northern Iraq, generating fears that the pontiff’s security might be at risk.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, acknowledged this week that the Vatican shares everyone’s concern, but he denied rumors of the pontiff being targeted.
“The pope faces no specific threats or risks that would require him to change his behavior or changes to the way the trip has been organized,” Lombardi said.
Roberto Morozzo della Rocca, professor at Roma Tre University and an expert on Balkan history, also downplayed the fears.
“Albanian Muslims live like Westerners,” he said. “They have the same ways and customs. One cannot equate being Muslim with being a terrorist.”
Monsignor Segundo Tejado, a Spanish priest who spent a decade in Albania right after democracy was adopted in the early 90s, spoke to Crux about the reconstruction of the Catholic Church in the country.
“It was a beautiful, but really challenging project,” he said. “Those who defined themselves as Muslims, Catholics, or Orthodox did so because their families had these beliefs, not because they knew what it actually meant.”
In the case of the Catholic Church, there were very few religious people left; most had spent years in prison for refusing conversion or were in exile, disconnected from the country’s reality and the institution.
“We had to rebuild the institution from the base. These people knew nothing about the Second Vatican Council, the changes it brought to the Church’s life and its liturgy.” Tejado said.
The situation was similar for other religious groups, given that the persecution they experienced helped them form tight bonds. As Tejado recalls, from the early days of democracy, it was natural to see politicians and leaders from various religious backgrounds working together.
“They had suffered equally,” he said. “This brought them together in a united front against atheism and secularism, the biggest challenge we faced after the end of communism.”
Pope Francis’s short trip will be a very intense one. In less than 10 hours he will deliver six speeches, celebrate a large public Mass, have lunch with local bishops, and meet with priests, seminarians, religious orders, and members of lay movements.
The pontiff also will visit a center for abandoned children and meet local authorities, including both the prime minister and the president of Albania.
This will be the Pope’s fourth international voyage after Brazil, the Holy Land, and South Korea. In the next six months, he’s scheduled to visit Strasbourg, Turkey, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines.