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Pope Francis called Sunday 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 discriminate 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 Rev. Ernest Troshani, 84, who for 28 years was imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to forced labor 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 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.
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....
Francis has said it was legitimate to use force to stop the Islamic extremists, but that the international community should be consulted on how to do so. Last month, the Vatican's office with relations with Muslims issued a strong statement condemning the Islamic State's atrocities and calling on religious leaders, particularly Muslims, to use their influence to stop them. The extremists' advance is of particular concern to the Vatican given the exodus of faithful from lands where Christian communities have existed for 2,000 years.
The Albanian capital's main Boulevard Martyrs of the Nation was decorated for the visit 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 and scores executed before the regime fell in 1990.
One of those who was imprisoned was Troshani, the 84-year-old priest who said he nearly died from the torture inflicted on him by his jailers, who took him on Christmas Eve, 1963 and slated him for execution. He said he was only spared because Hoxha learned that he had forgiven his captors.