In Albania, pope to celebrate religious revival and tolerance

Thu Sep 18, 2014 5:48am EDT
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By Benet Koleka

TIRANA (Reuters) - Father Gjergj Meta's grandfather managed to save the gold chalice and communion plate from his village church when it was razed like many others in Albania during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha half a century ago.

Hoxha, a hardline Stalinist, had banned religion in 1967, driving Albania's Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim faithful underground in his drive to create what he boasted was the world's first atheist state.

This Sunday, Pope Francis makes a day trip to Albania - his first to a European country - to pay tribute to followers of all religions who, like Meta's grandfather, suffered some of the worst persecution in the 20th century, and to hold up the impoverished nation as a model of inter-religious harmony.

Meta, 38, was among the first generation of Albanian men who trained for the priesthood in Italy, returning to his homeland when it ditched communism in 1990.

He said his first mass in 2001 with the same chalice and plate two months after his grandfather died. "My lips drank from the same cup as those who had given their lives for the Church," said Meta, a pastor in the coastal city of Durres.

That Francis should choose to visit Albania, an impoverished Balkan country of 3 million people just across the Adriatic from Italy, rather than one of the major capitals of the old continent for his first trip is in keeping with a papacy geared to casting light on the problems of the poorest.

"The pope is not starting (his European visits) from Berlin, Paris or London. This is a desire to show his concern for people who are not the most powerful and most rich," said Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi. "There is no doubt about his interest in the margins (of society)."

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.   Continued...

Pope Francis gives a thumbs-up during his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican September 17, 2014. REUTERS/Max Rossi