Pope Francis condemns Islamist militants
TIRANA Albania: Pope Francis, in his strongest
criticism of Islamist militants to date, said on Sunday no religious group
which used violence and oppression could claim to be “the armour of God.”
The Pope made his comments during a one-day visit to
Albania, an impoverished Balkan country hailed by the pontiff as a model of
inter-faith harmony because of good relations between its majority Muslim
community and its Christian denominations.
“Let no one consider themselves the ‘armour’ of God
while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression,” he said in
the presidential palace in Tirana, responding to an address by Albanian
President Bujar Nishani, who is Muslim.
“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 to the right to life and the right of everyone to religious
freedom,” he said.
Francis, on his first trip as pope to a European
country outside Italy, made no direct reference to Islamic State militants who
have seized territory in Syria and Iraq, but it was clear he had events in the
Middle East in mind.
About 70,000 Syrian Kurds have fled into Turkey since
Friday as Islamic State militants seized dozens of villages close to the
border. A Kurdish politician from Turkey said local people had told him the
militants were beheading people as they went from village to village.
Islamic State has declared a ‘caliphate’ in the
territories they control and have killed or driven out large numbers of
Christians, Shi’ite Muslims and others who do not subscribe to their hardline
version of Sunni Islam.
Asked specifically about Islamic State last month when
returning from a trip to South Korea, Francis endorsed action by the
international community to stop ‘unjust aggression’.
In Tirana, Francis lauded the mutual respect and trust
between Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians in Albania as a ‘precious
gift’ and a powerful symbol in today’s world.
“This is especially the case in these times where an
authentic religious spirit is being perverted by extremist groups and where
religious differences are being distorted and instrumentalised,” said Francis.
The pope said a Mass before some 250,000 people in a
square in central Tirana named after the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, an
ethnic Albanian who is a national heroine.
Both the Vatican and Albanian officials dismissed
media reports of concern for the pope's safety. Security appeared normal for a
papal trip overseas and in some places lighter than in some previous trips.
Some 60 per cent of all Albanians are Muslim, while
Roman Catholics account for just 10 percent of the population. The pope
returned to the theme of tolerance during a meeting with leaders of other
religions, telling them that “all those forms which present a distorted use of
religion must be firmly refuted as false ...”
Earlier, aboard the plane taking him on the short trip
across the Adriatic from Rome to Tirana, Francis said he wanted to visit
Albania because it had “suffered very, very much”. He is the first pope to
visit Albania in 21 years.
The late communist dictator Envier Hoxha banned religion
in 1967, driving Albania’s Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim faithful alike underground
in his drive to create what he boasted was the world’s first atheist state.
Nearly 2,000 churches, Orthodox and Catholic, were
destroyed under Hoxha, whose paranoid rule lasted four decades until his death
in 1985. Many were turned into cinemas or dancing halls.
More than 100 Catholic priests or bishops were
executed or died under torture or in labour camps. Just 30 survived in what
Francis referred to in his address as “a winter of isolation and persecution.”
At a vespers service on Sunday night in Tirana’s
cathedral, the pope wiped a tear from his eye when an 84-year-old priest,
Ernest Troshani, described how he had spent nearly 30 years in prison or forced
labour in mines, during which he was told by his captors that he was up next
for execution as an enemy of the state.
The pope was so moved that he kissed the man's hand,
put aside his prepared address, and delivered an impromptu sermon. “Today,
here, we have touched martyrs,” he said. (Reuters)