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Pope urges Muslims to condemn extremism

Published:Monday | September 22, 2014 | 9:00 AM
Pope Francis talks with reporters on the airplane on his way back to Rome after a visit to Albania. -AP

TIRANA (AP):Pope Francis called yesterday for Muslims and all religious leaders to condemn Islamic extremists who "pervert" religion to justify violence, as he visited Albania and held up the Balkan nation as a model for interfaith harmony for the rest of the world.

"To kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege. To discri-minate in the name of God is inhuman," Francis told representatives of Albania's Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic communities during a half-day visit to Tirana in which he recalled the brutal persecution people of all faiths suffered under communism.

Francis wept when he heard the testimony of one priest, the Reverend Ernest Troshani, 84, who for 28 years was imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to forced labour for refusing to speak out against the Catholic Church as his captors wanted.

"Today I touched the martyrs," Francis said after embracing the man.

Security was unusually tight for the Pope's first trip to a majority Muslim country since the Islamic State group began its crackdown on Christians in Iraq and announced its aim to extend its self-styled caliphate to Rome.

The trip was preceded by reports that militants who trained in Iraq and Syria had returned and might pose a threat.

The Vatican insisted it had no reports of specific threats against the Pope and that no special security measures were taken. But Francis' interactions with the crowds were much reduced compared to his pre-vious foreign trips. His open-top vehicle sped down Tirana's main boulevard, not stopping once for Francis to greet the faithful as is his norm.

He only kissed a few babies at the very end of the route, and then left quickly after his Mass ended. Snipers dotted rooftops along the route, military helicopters flew overhead and uniformed Albanian police formed human chains to keep the crowds at bay behind barricades.

Francis' own bodyguards stood guard on the back of his car or jogged alongside.

inspiring example

In his opening speech, Francis told President Bujar Nishani, Albanian officials and the diplomatic corps that Albania's interreligious harmony was an "inspiring example" for the world, showing that Christian-Muslim coexistence wasn't only possible but beneficial for a country's development.

"This is especially the case in these times, in which authentic religious spirit is being perverted by extremist groups," he said.

"Let no one consider themselves to be the 'armour' of God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression!" Francis said in the wood-paneled reception room of Tirana's presidential palace.

Muslims make up about 59 per cent of Albania's population, with Catholics amounting to 10 per cent and Orthodox Christians just under that, according to the country's official figures. Muslims and Christians govern together, and interfaith families are common, thanks to the near-quarter century when religion was banned under communism.

Addressing Muslim and other religious leaders at a Catholic university, Francis said religious intolerance was a "particularly insidious enemy" that was evident in many parts of the world today.