Capital Tirana
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 355
Mobile Codes 66,67,68,69
ccTLD .al
Currency Lek (1EUR = 138ALL)
Land Area 28,748 sq km
Population 2.98 million
Language Albanian
Major Religion Sunni and Bektashi Islam, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity

Pope Francis To Visit Albania, with Future Vatican Balkan Events in Preparation

By Matteo Albertini and Chris Deliso

Visit’s dedicated Vatican coverage page

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On September 21, just eighteen months after his election, Pope Francis will make a historic visit to Albania, populated by Catholics, Orthodox and Muslim believers. It will be the second Papal visit to Tirana; the first, by Pope John Paul II, occurred in 1993, a few years after democracy came to the former Communist atheist country.

Preliminary Comments from the Pope

In fact, the Pope himself mentioned, in a far-ranging interview conducted on his private plane while returning from South Korea in August, several factors that made Albania an attractive choice: history, current political and social dynamics and, of course, proximity.

“I’m going to Albania for two important reasons,” said Pope Francis. “First, because they were able to make a government – and let’s think of the Balkans, eh – a government of national unity among Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics, with an interreligious council that has helped a lot and is balanced.”

The Pope also mentioned the distance – that a trip to Albania would be doable in a day – as well as the historical element, oddly classifying Albania, which apparently “of all the nations in the former Yugoslavia, was the only one that in its constitution had the practical atheism.” Despite the geographical error, the Pope seemed to be very well-informed on the number of churches that were destroyed or reused during Communist times.

This combination of crafted perception and detailed facts is significant in that it indicates information management strategies and methodology that are revealing concerning the Vatican’s diplomatic goals in the region, and those who wish to influence it (for a detailed study of this subject, see below for details on the upcoming Special Publication on the Vatican’s role in the Balkans, which will be available on Amazon Kindle at the end of September).

Organizational Considerations of the Papal Visit

Pope Francis’ visit to Albania is being coordinated by Albert Nikolla, head of the Albania branch of Caritas. Founded in 1993, this has become one of the most significant Catholic charities, with a global reach. Nikolla is working closely with local Catholic leaders, such as Archbishop of Tirana Rrok Mirdita. He will also coordinate with Vatican officials such as Papal Nuncio to Tirana Archbishop Ramiro Moliner Inglés, and the powerful Domenico Giani head of the Vatican’s Gendarmerie Corps. In 2008, in response to threats from Islamic militants, the security body created two counter-terrorism sub-units, and the Pope’s recent conditional support for countering ISIS in Iraq has raised speculation that he may be a target of the terrorist group internationally.

Albanian state security agencies are coordinating efforts with the Vatican’s Gendarmerie and Italian counterparts. “Oh, the Albanian officials are terrified that something could go wrong,” one informed individual with knowledge of the event tells us. “This is why they have taken measures, quietly, to guarantee security.”

If the common goal is reached and Albania can organize a seamless and safe visit, it will bolster the incumbent government and improve Albania’s reputation in the Catholic and wider world. Whether or not it actually increases turnout at Sunday Mass in the future, of course, remains to be seen. Recent discussions with local people in the (admittedly, Orthodox-majority) southern parts of the country indicated relatively low interest in the Pope’s visit.

Practical Itinerary of the Papal Visit, September 21

The Pope’s official itinerary, released on July 31, provides for an 11-hour visit with multiple meetings and a mass in Mother Teresa Square in Tirana (the city’s international airport is also named for the famous but controversial Catholic nun, who was born in neighboring Skopje, Macedonia). As reported by the Catholic Herald, the itinerary includes a 9:30am welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace, and meeting with Albanian President Bujar Nishani. At the same location, the Pope will see officials from the Edi Rama socialist government.

The outdoor mass – which probably represents the biggest potential security concern of the day – will follow at 11am. It will be followed at 1:30pm by a Papal lunch with the bishops of Albania in the apostolic nunciature. Later, at 4pm, the Pope will meet with “leaders of other religions and other Christian denominations” at the Catholic University of Our Lady of Good Counsel, where he will also give a speech.

Following a 5pm celebration of vespers with clergy and laymen at Tirana Cathedral, Pope Francis will meet local children at another charity, by the Bethany Centre, another charity. It is expected that other Catholic charity representatives present in the country will also attend. Then it is off to the airport for a farewell ceremony. If all goes according to plan, the Pope will be home in Italy by 9:30pm.

Optimism for the Future

Albanian Catholic leaders have voiced their enthusiasm over Pope Francis’ visit, and there are already tangible signs that the community will try to build on the momentum generated by the visit to plan future events that will increase Albania’s stature in the Balkan Catholic world. This could also have diplomatic ramifications in the future.

In a July 31st interview with Vatican Radio, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Tirana, Rrok Mirdita said the country’s Catholic Church was very “grateful and happy” for Pope Francis’ upcoming visit. Archbishop Mirdita added two talking points- about Catholic “martyrdom” during the Enver Hoxha regime, and that Albania should be perceived as “an exemplary model of peaceful co-existence” between different religions, citing the country’s Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim populations.

Over the past five or six years, the concept of ‘inter-religious dialogue’ has become quite the fashion in the Balkans, drawing support from politicians as well as outside actors like Tony Blair and the Qatar Foundation. In the post-9/11 world, it is a diplomatically useful and often quite lucrative business to be in, meaning that it is rarely executed in good faith.

To his credit, Archbishop Mirdita balanced out the perceived positives when he specified ‘corruption, poverty, unemployment and organized crime’ as persistent problems in Albania, which need to be overcome. He also specified that the country has Europe’s youngest population, and this fact alone makes it attractive for the Vatican, which is fighting a losing battle across much of post-Christian Europe. As such, the archbishop’s optimism that the Pope’s visit will help “anchor the faith” of Albanians points to a longer-term strategic plan.

The Papal visit is thus expected to generate some further activities in future. High representatives of the Community of Sant Egidio, another prominent Catholic NGO that has been active for many years in Albania, appeared in Tirana on the 25 and 26 of August for promoting a future event, one which will focus on the entire Balkans, and be held in the Albanian capital. can confirm that this event will be held jointly with Vatican, local Catholic and government officials on September 5-6, 2015.