Pope denounces perversion of religion for violence

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Pope denounces perversion of religion for violence
Pope Francis puts a scarf on a child as he is driven through the crowd, in Mother Teresa Square, in Tirana, Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. Pope Francis denounced that extremists around the world are "perverting" religion to justify violence as he arrived Sunday in Albania, a Balkan nation where Christians and Muslims endured brutal religious oppression under communism but today live and work together peacefully. (AP Photo/Hector Pustina)
Pope Francis smiles as he is driven through the crowd, in Mother Teresa Square, in Tirana, Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. Pope Francis denounced that extremists around the world are "perverting" religion to justify violence as he arrived Sunday in Albania, a Balkan nation where Christians and Muslims endured brutal religious oppression under communism but today live and work together peacefully. (AP Photo/Hector Pustina)
Pope Francis waves to faithful as he is driven through the crowd, in mother Teresa square, in Tirana, Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. Pope Francis denounced that extremists around the world are "perverting" religion to justify violence as he arrived Sunday in Albania, a Balkan nation where Christians and Muslims endured brutal religious oppression under communism but today live and work together peacefully. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
Pope Francis waves to faithful as he is driven through the crowd, in mother Teresa square, in Tirana, Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. Pope Francis denounced that extremists around the world are "perverting" religion to justify violence as he arrived Sunday in Albania, a Balkan nation where Christians and Muslims endured brutal religious oppression under communism but today live and work together peacefully. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
Pope Francis waves to faithful as he is driven through the crowd, in Mother Teresa Square, in Tirana, Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. Pope Francis denounced that extremists around the world are "perverting" religion to justify violence as he arrived Sunday in Albania, a Balkan nation where Christians and Muslims endured brutal religious oppression under communism but today live and work together peacefully. (AP Photo/Hector Pustina)
Pope Francis stands next to Albania's President Bujar Nishani during a ceremony at the presidential palace, in Tirana, Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. Pope Francis arrived Sunday in Albania on his first European trip, designed to highlight the Balkan nation's path from a brutal communist state where religion was banned to a model of Christian-Muslim coexistence for a world witnessing conflict in God's name. (AP Photo/Hector Pustina)
An Albanian special forces member looks through the scope of his rifle as he stands on a roof top in Mother Teresa Square before the arrival of Pope Francis, in Tirana, Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. Security was unusually tight for Francis' visit to the majority Muslim country amid reports that militants who trained in Iraq and Syria had returned and might pose a threat. The Vatican insisted no special security measures were taken, but Francis' interactions with the crowd were very different than from his previous foreign trips: His open-topped vehicle sped down Tirana's main boulevard, not stopping once for Francis to greet the faithful as is his norm. (AP Photo/Hector Pustina)
Pope Francis waves to faithful as he is driven through the crowd, in Mother Teresa Square, in Tirana, Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. Pope Francis arrived Sunday in Albania on his first European trip, designed to highlight the Balkan nation's path from a brutal communist state where religion was banned to a model of Christian-Muslim coexistence for a world witnessing conflict in God's name. (AP Photo/Hector Pustina)
Pope Francis kisses a baby as he is driven through the crowd, in Mother Teresa Square, in Tirana, Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. Pope Francis arrived Sunday in Albania on his first European trip, designed to highlight the Balkan nation's path from a brutal communist state where religion was banned to a model of Christian-Muslim coexistence for a world witnessing conflict in God's name. (AP Photo/Hector Pustina)
Pope Francis kisses a baby, in Mother Teresa Square, in Tirana, Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. Pope Francis arrived Sunday in Albania on his first European trip, designed to highlight the Balkan nation's path from a brutal communist state where religion was banned to a model of Christian-Muslim coexistence for a world witnessing conflict in God's name. (AP Photo/Hector Pustina)
Pope Francis walks with South Korean President Park Geun-hye upon his arrival in Seoul, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. The Pontiff arrived in South Korea on the first papal visit to the Asian nation in a quarter century, stepping off a plane onto a red carpet and greeting the president, local Catholics and grieving relatives. During his five-day visit, Francis plans to beatify 124 Korean martyrs and encourage a vibrant and growing local church seen as a model for the future of Catholicism. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Pope Francis arrives in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. The Pontiff arrived Thursday on the first papal visit to the Asian nation in a quarter century, stepping off a plane onto a red carpet and greeting the president, local Catholics and grieving relatives. During his five-day visit, Francis plans to beatify 124 Korean martyrs and encourage a vibrant and growing local church seen as a model for the future of Catholicism. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Pope Francis smiles as he meets journalists aboard the papal flight on the journey to Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. Pope Francis arrived Thursday in South Korea on the first papal visit to the Asian nation in a quarter century. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Pope Francis gets in a car as South Korean President Park Geun-hye, center, smiles upon his arrival at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam, South Korea, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived for a five-day visit to South Korea to participate in a Catholic youth festival and to preside over a beatification ceremony for 124 Korean martyrs. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon. Pool)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - AUGUST 14: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the Committee for the 2014 Papal Visit to Korea, people cheer as motorcades with Pope Francis onboard goes by after arriving on August 14, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea. Pope Francis is visiting South Korea from August 14 to August 18. This trip is the third trip abroad for the pope following Brazil and the Middle East. This is the third pontifical visit to South Korea. (Photo by Committee for the 2014 Papal Visit to Korea via Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - AUGUST 14: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the Committee for the 2014 Papal Visit to Korea, motorcades with Pope Francis onboard are seen after arriving on August 14, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea. Pope Francis is visiting South Korea from August 14 to August 18. This trip is the third trip abroad for the pope following Brazil and the Middle East. This is the third pontifical visit to South Korea. (Photo by Committee for the 2014 Papal Visit to Korea via Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - AUGUST 14: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the Committee for the 2014 Papal Visit to Korea, South Koreans cheer as motorcades with Pope Francis onboard goes by after arriving on August 14, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea. Pope Francis is visiting South Korea from August 14 to August 18. This trip is the third trip abroad for the pope following Brazil and the Middle East. This is the third pontifical visit to South Korea. (Photo by Committee for the 2014 Papal Visit to Korea via Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - AUGUST 14: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the Committee for the 2014 Papal Visit to Korea, motorcades with Pope Francis onboard are seen after arriving on August 14, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea. Pope Francis is visiting South Korea from August 14 to August 18. This trip is the third trip abroad for the pope following Brazil and the Middle East. This is the third pontifical visit to South Korea. (Photo by Committee for the 2014 Papal Visit to Korea via Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - AUGUST 14: Pope Francis shakes hands with South Koreans upon his arrival on August 14, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea. Pope Francis is visiting South Korea from August 14 to August 18. This trip is the third trip abroad for the pope following Brazil and the Middle East. This is the third pontifical visit to South Korea. (Photo by Song Kyung-Seok-Pool/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - AUGUST 14: Pope Francis walks with South Korean President Park Geun-Hye upon his arrival on August 14, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea. Pope Francis is visiting South Korea from August 14 to August 18. This trip is the third trip abroad for the pope following Brazil and the Middle East. This is the third pontifical visit to South Korea. (Photo by Song Kyung-Seok-Pool/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - AUGUST 14: Pope Francis walks with South Korean President Park Geun-Hye upon his arrival on August 14, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea. Pope Francis is visiting South Korea from August 14 to August 18. This trip is the third trip abroad for the pope following Brazil and the Middle East. This is the third pontifical visit to South Korea. (Photo by Song Kyung-Seok-Pool/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - AUGUST 14: Pope Francis arrives at Seoul military airport on August 14, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea. Pope Francis is visiting South Korea from August 14 to August 18. This trip is the third trip abroad for the pope following Brazil and the Middle East. This is the third pontifical visit to South Korea. (Photo by Song Kyung-Seok-Pool/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - AUGUST 14: Pope Francis arrives at Seoul military airport on August 14, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea. Pope Francis is visiting South Korea from August 14 to August 18. This trip is the third trip abroad for the pope following Brazil and the Middle East. This is the third pontifical visit to South Korea. (Photo by Song Kyung-Seok-Pool/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - AUGUST 14: Pope Francis arrives at Seoul military airport on August 14, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea. Pope Francis is visiting South Korea from August 14 to August 18. This trip is the third trip abroad for the pope following Brazil and the Middle East. This is the third pontifical visit to South Korea. (Photo by Song Kyung-Seok-Pool/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - AUGUST 14: Pope Francis arrives at Seoul military airport on August 14, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea. Pope Francis is visiting South Korea from August 14 to August 18. This trip is the third trip abroad for the pope following Brazil and the Middle East. This is the third pontifical visit to South Korea. (Photo by Song Kyung-Seok-Pool/Getty Images)
Pope Francis exits the plane upon his arrival at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis smiles upon his arrival at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis (top L) is welcomed by schoolchildren upon his arrival at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis (C) shakes hands with people as he is welcomed on the tarmac following his arrival at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis (centre R) shakes hands with a nun as he is welcomed on the tarmac following his arrival at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis (centre R) is welcomed on the tarmac following his arrival at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis waves as he prepares to get into a car following his arrival at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis exits the plane upon his arrival at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis exits the plane upon his arrival at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis exits the plane upon his arrival at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis (R) waves as he prepares to get into a car following his arrival at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis waves as he prepares to get into a car following his arrival at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis waves as he prepares to get into a car following his arrival at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
A journalist takes pictures of Pope Francis as he welcomes journalists aboard the flight to Seoul on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis (R) waves as he prepares to get into a car following his arrival at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis prays for Italian journalist Simone Camilli, killed in Gaza, aboard the flight to Seoul on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / POOL/ GREGORIO BORGIA (Photo credit should read GREGORIO BORGIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis prays for Italian journalist Simone Camilli, killed in Gaza, aboard the flight to Seoul on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / POOL/ GREGORIO BORGIA (Photo credit should read GREGORIO BORGIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis prays for Italian journalist Simone Camilli, killed in Gaza, aboard the flight to Seoul on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / POOL/ GREGORIO BORGIA (Photo credit should read GREGORIO BORGIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis (C) shakes hands with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se (L) as South Korea's President Park Geun-Hye (R) looks on, following the pope's arrival at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis (C) walks with South Korea's President Park Geun-Hye (R) following his arrival at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
South Korean troops fire heavy artillery to welcome Pope Francis upon his arrival at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis walks down the stairs from his plane upon his arrival at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis walks away after welcoming journalist aboard the flight to Seoul on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis walks away after welcoming journalist aboard the flight to Seoul on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis smiles as he poses for a selfie with Korean journalist Ae Jung Ko aboard the flight to Seoul on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis smiles as he welcomes journalists aboard the flight to Seoul on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Travellers watch a television screen broadcasting live footage of the arrival of Pope Francis, at a railway station in Seoul on August 14, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in South Korea looking to fuel a new era of Catholic growth in Asia -- a mission fraught with complex political challenges but huge potential rewards. AFP PHOTO / JUNG YEON-JE (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis listens as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon delivers his speech, at the Vatican, Friday, May 9, 2014. Pope Francis called Friday for governments to redistribute wealth to the poor in a new spirit of generosity to help curb the "economy of exclusion" that is taking hold today. Francis made the appeal during a speech to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the heads of major U.N. agencies who are meeting in Rome this week. Latin America's first pope has frequently lashed out at the injustices of capitalism and the global economic system that excludes so much of humanity. (AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano)
In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis greets U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the Vatican, Friday, May 9, 2014. Pope Francis called Friday for governments to redistribute wealth to the poor in a new spirit of generosity to help curb the "economy of exclusion" that is taking hold today. Francis made the appeal during a speech to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the heads of major U.N. agencies who are meeting in Rome this week. Latin America's first pope has frequently lashed out at the injustices of capitalism and the global economic system that excludes so much of humanity. (AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano)
Pope Francis listens to his speech being translated in several languages, during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. A U.N. human rights committee denounced the Vatican on Wednesday for “systematically” adopting policies that allowed priests to rape and molest tens of thousands of children over decades, and urged it to open its files on the pedophiles and the bishops who concealed their crimes. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. A U.N. human rights committee denounced the Vatican on Wednesday for “systematically” adopting policies that allowed priests to rape and molest tens of thousands of children over decades, and urged it to open its files on the pedophiles and the bishops who concealed their crimes. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
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By LLAZAR SEMINI and NICOLE WINFIELD

TIRANA, Albania (AP) - Pope Francis denounced that extremists around the world are "perverting" religion to justify violence as he arrived Sunday in Albania, a Balkan nation where Christians and Muslims endured brutal religious oppression under communism but today live and work together peacefully.

Security was unusually tight for Francis' visit to the majority Muslim country amid reports that militants who trained in Iraq and Syria had returned and might pose a threat.

The Vatican insisted no special security measures were taken, but Francis' interactions with the crowd were much reduced compared to his previous foreign trips: His open-topped vehicle sped down Tirana's main boulevard, not stopping once for Francis to greet the faithful as is his norm.

Pope's First Papal Visit To Europe Lands Him In... Albania?

He only kissed a few babies at the very end of the route as he neared the square where he celebrated Mass. Uniformed Albanian police formed human chains to keep the crowds at bay behind barricades while Francis' own bodyguards stood watch, perched on the back of his car or jogging alongside. Albania's Interior Ministry promised "maximum" protection from 2,500 police forces and beefed-up patrols at border crossings.

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 was not 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, and where religious differences are being distorted and instrumentalized," he said.

"Let no one consider themselves to be the 'armor' 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.

That harmony was on hand during Francis' main event Sunday: A Mass in a square named after Albania's most famous Catholic - Mother Teresa - attended by tens of thousands of people, including senior representatives of Albania's Muslim, Orthodox and Bektashi groups, seated in places of honor.

It was Francis' first visit to a majority Muslim nation since the Islamic State crackdown on Christians in Iraq, with members of religious minorities being killed, persecuted or forced to flee their homes by militants. The Vatican has voiced mounting concern about the exodus of faithful from lands where Christian communities have existed for 2,000 years.

Muslims make up about 59 percent of Albania's population, with Catholics amounting to 10 percent and Orthodox Christians just under that, according to the country's official figures.

Francis' decision to visit tiny, poor Albania before any major European capital is in keeping with his desire for the Catholic Church to go to the "periphery." Albania is seeking European Union membership and his visit comes just a few weeks before he delivers a major speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.

Albania's president, Nishani, thanked Francis for making the country his first European destination, saying it was a historic event for all Albanians.

"There is no intolerance, extremism among us but reciprocal respect inherited from generation to generation," he said. "From an atheist country, we have turned into a country of religious freedom."

The capital's main Boulevard Martyrs of the Nation was decorated with Albanian and Vatican flags, as well as giant portraits of 40 Catholic priests who were persecuted or executed under Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, who declared Albania the world's first atheist state in 1967. Hundreds of priests and imams were jailed, scores executed before the regime fell in 1990.

Francis paid tribute to these martyrs and those from other faiths, saying they showed witness to their faith even under persecution.

"Recalling the decades of atrocious suffering and harsh persecutions against Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims, we can say that Albania was a land of martyrs," he said in his homily. Deviating from his text, Francis thanked Albanians for their ancestors' sacrifice, recalling the national symbol of the eagle.

"Do not forget your wounds, but don't avenge them," he said. "Go forward, flying on the hopes of a great future."

Francis has a busy schedule in Tirana: In addition to the address to Albanian authorities and Mass, he was meeting with leaders of different faiths, celebrating a vespers service and visiting children cared for by charitable groups.

Albanian police said they had the security situation under control. Cell phone providers complied with a request from police to jam cellphone reception in the area where the pope was in downtown Tirana. People attending the pope's Mass were told to avoid wearing heavy clothing since they would be checked by police and not to bring bags, suitcases or glass bottles.

"There is no threat to the pope's security. We have undertaken all the measures and everything will go well," police chief Artan Didi told reporters after a meeting with Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri on final security arrangements.

While the Vatican maintained no special security measures were being taken in Albania, security at the Vatican itself has been beefed-up in recent days: More barricades and police were out in force during Francis' weekly general audience this past week and Italian media reported security was being doubled.

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