, VATICAN CITY, September 21- Pope Francis travels to Albania on Sunday 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.
– Martyrs of the faith –
Albania has managed to create a “government of national unity among Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics, with an interreligious council that has helped a lot and is balanced,” he said in August, adding that his presence “will be a way of saying to everyone, ‘See, we can all work together!'”
His closed-door meeting with chiefs from other religious communities will include Muslim, Orthodox, Bektashi, Jewish and Protestant leaders.
The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics also wants to honour those who suffered under former dictator Enver Hoxha, who declared Albania the world’s first atheist state in 1967, and during whose reign priests and imams were persecuted and holy places were razed.
Between 1945 and 1985, 111 priests, 10 seminarians and seven bishops died in detention or were executed.
Nearly 2,000 Orthodox and Catholic churches were destroyed or transformed into cinemas, theatres and dance halls, according to Francis, who said the successful rebirth of the Catholic faith after such persecution made Albania a place where “I felt like I should go.”
The revival of Catholicism is due in part to the popularity of Mother Teresa, who was born in what is now Macedonia but had Albanian origins.
In a country with one of the youngest populations in Europe, the Vatican will be hoping to tap into a source for converts in a continent gripped by secularism.
It will be the second papal visit to Albania. Pope John Paul II travelled there the year after communism collapsed in the country in 1992.
During that visit he paid tribute to “martyrs of the faith” and created four new bishops, including Michel Koliqi — then 91 years old — who had spent 21 years in detention.
– Heightened security –
The country of three million will likely be looking for the popular pope’s support in its bid to become a member of the European Union.
“It is a strong signal and an encouragement to ramp up our move towards European integration,” Don Gjergi Meta, the Church’s spokesman in Albania, told Vatican Radio.
The Vatican has insisted it has not increased security for the trip, but Albania’s interior ministry said police have set up 29 checkpoints in downtown Tirana, where most of the pope’s activities were planned, including at the Mother Teresa square.
Some Vatican watchers fear Francis has made himself a target by speaking out against the Islamic State organisation.
But the Argentine pontiff, who loves more than anything to mingle with the crowds, will use the same open topped vehicle he uses in Saint Peter’s Square.
Despite being one of Europe’s poorest countries, Albania last month began sending weapons and ammunition to Kurdish forces fighting IS militants in Iraq, and security sources in the country have brushed off fears of home grown militants planning an attack.