- Title: ALBANIA-POPE PREVIEW Albania excited about Pope visit
- Date: 18th September 2014
- Summary: TIRANA, ALBANIA, (SEPTEMBER 15, 2014) (REUTERS) VARIOUS OF "SKANDERBEG" BOULEVARD/ TRAFFIC ALBANIAN AND VATICAN FLAGS WAVING "MOTHER THERESA" BOULEVARD WHERE POPE IS EXPECTED TO HOLD THE MASS WORKERS CLEANING THE BOULEVARD VARIOUS OF WORKERS REMOVING CONSTRUCTION DEBRIS VARIOUS OF WORKERS CLEANING THE BUILDING WINDOWS TIRANA, ALBANIA, (SEPTEMBER 17, 2014) (REUTERS) STREET SCENE/ SOUVENIR SHOP T-SHIRT PORTRAYING POPE FRANCIS ON DISPLAY VARIOUS OF WOMAN CHECKING COFFEE CUP WITH POPE'S IMAGE KEY CHAINS PORTRAYING POPE FRANCIS ALBANIAN POST OFFICE VARIOUS OF WORKER SHOWING NEWLY DESIGNED STAMPS IN HONOUR OF POPE
- Embargoed: 3rd October 2014 13:00
- Location: Albania
- Country: Albania
- Topics: General
- Reuters ID: LVA7BO1SAZQGMH8YT180KU2802IM
- Story Text: The only topic of conversation in the Albanian capital Tirana at the moment is the visit of Pope Francis on Sunday (September 21).
Preparations are taking place right across the city, the Albanian red flag with a double headed black eagle waves side-by-side with the Vatican flag everywhere as workers prepare the locations where the Pope will visit.
Coffee cups, key chains, T-shirts portraying Pope Francis' are already being sold at the local souvenir shops, and the Albanian post office has published a postage stamp in honour of the Pope's visit - his first official visit to a European nation.
Dom Gjergj Meta's grandfather managed to save the chalice and the Corpus Christi plate from his village church when it was razed like hundreds of others in Albania by the Stalinist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha half a century ago.
Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha banned religion in 1967, driving Albania's Catholic and Muslim faithful alike underground. Meta was among the first generation of priests schooled in Italy, returning to his native Albania when it ditched communism in 1990 and holding his first mass in April 2001 with the same chalice and plate saved by his grandfather, who sadly passed away just two months before the mass was held.
"And now, we are waiting for Pope Francis, I hope he will be here as a right person to give us hope and courage for the future, " said the 38-year-old parish priest from the Saint Lucia church in the coastal city of Durres.
Catholicism has reclaimed its place in this predominantly Muslim - but largely secular - country in the more than two decades since Albania's borders reopened and the country set out to re-join Europe.
The revival of the faith, and its peaceful coexistence with Islam, is what Pope Francis will celebrate on Sunday in the Albanian capital Tirana
The Pope's visit comes against a backdrop of turmoil in the Middle East and signs of rising cultural intolerance in Europe.
That Francis should choose to visit Albania - an impoverished Balkan country of 3 million people across the Adriatic from Italy, on the margins of Europe - rather than France, Germany or Britain is in keeping with a papacy that in many ways has ripped up the rule book since the abdication of the more traditionalist Pope Benedict.
"It is a very important event, it is the second time that a Pope visits Albania and we welcome him with joy. Luckily with the arrival of the Pope Tirana has changed also, we are seeing it getting improved. So we are waiting for him will lot of happiness and emotion and I wish that everything goes as beautifully as it can," said Doriana Tocaj.
Catholics account for around 10 percent of Albanians. Some 60 percent of the population is Muslim, while others are mainly Christian Orthodox or agnostic. They are united by language and deep-rooted customs that are often the same regardless of faith in largely traditional, patriarchal Albanian society.
In announcing his trip, Francis noted that precisely 1,820 churches, Orthodox and Catholic, were destroyed under Hoxha, whose paranoid rule ran four decades until his death in 1985. Many were turned into cinemas, dancing halls or warehouses.
Over 100 Catholic priests or bishops were executed or died under torture or in labour camps. Just 30 survived, said chief Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, who was formerly provincial of Jesuits in Italy with jurisdiction over Albania.
Hoxha built a museum of atheism, including an exhibit portraying Pope John XXIII, who led the Catholic Church from 1958 to 1963, dancing the twist with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The two never met.
Francis follows in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II, whose own papacy spanned the end of the Cold War and whose visit to Albania in 1993 consecrated the revival of religious faith after decades of repression.
John Paul II anointed four archbishops in the northwestern city of Shkoder, where Albania's revolt against communism began in 1990 with an illegal Mass.
Muslims and Catholics alike are expected to pack the Tirana square where Francis will hold a Mass, a spot that takes its name from Mother Theresa, an ethnic Albanian born in present-day Macedonia when much of the Balkan Peninsula was still part of the Ottoman Empire.
Many Albanians see the visit as affirmation of their place in the European family, something they hope to cement one day with membership of the European Union having joined NATO in 2009.
Most Albanians were Christian before the Ottoman occupation. The 15th century nobleman Gjergj Kastriot Skanderbeg remains their national hero for his 25-year fight to keep the Muslim Ottomans at bay and away from the papal stables, where Ottoman rulers had vowed to feed their horses.
The Vatican hailed Skanderbeg as a champion of Christendom. Mass conversion to Islam followed his death.
Skender Brucaj, leader of Albania's Muslim Community, said the pontiff's visit was of "special importance".
"The visit of Pope Francis in Albania is of an special importance for Albanian Muslims, for the reason that Pope has stated that he values highly the harmony between religions and their co-existence in Albania. This is of added value to the world today because, unfortunately, of late we hear about turmoil created in the name of faith, but which has nothing to with religion or what Islam preaches" he said.
The Albania visit will be Pope Francis' fourth international voyage and his first visit as Pope to a European country outside Italy.
"The arrival of Pope Francis at this moment is also a strong message firstly for Europe as it is his first visit to Europe. A Europe that for Pope Francis starts from poor Albania and not from the wealthy Brussels," Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama told Reuters.
Francis has said he wanted to visit Albania to highlight the rebirth of Christianity that was brutally wiped out during communist rule, and to showcase how Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims are working together now to govern the country.
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