Vatican City: Pope Francis will head to Albania on Sunday on his first trip to a European country, to pay tribute to those who suffered under Communism and praise a political system under which religions unite.
A recent warning from Iraq`s ambassador to the Holy See that the 77-year-old could be targeted by IS jihadists during his visit to the mostly-Muslim country has been shrugged off by the Vatican, which said security measures would remain unchanged.
The Argentine pontiff, who habitually throws caution to the winds to mingle with the crowds, will use the same open-topped vehicle he uses in Saint Peter`s Square at a mass in Tirana, the capital of one of Europe`s poorest countries.
Some Vatican watchers fear the pope has made himself a target by speaking out against the Islamic State organisation and having the Holy See voice support for US air strikes in Iraq -- a rare exception to its policy of peaceful conflict resolution.
Francis will likely be hoping to counter this with a message of hope for the Middle East, with Albania held up as an example of a land where religions often in strife elsewhere cohabit successfully.
In August, he said he had chosen Albania because it had managed to create a "government of national unity among Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics, with an interreligious council that has helped a lot and is balanced."
"The pope`s presence will be a way of saying to everyone, `See, we can all work together!`," he said.
The trip will be an 11-hour marathon during which the pontiff will meet Albanian president Bujar Nishani, celebrate mass in Tirana`s Mother Teresa square, lunch with bishops, chat with religious leaders and visit orphans.The leader of the world`s 1.2 billion Catholics also wants to honour those who suffered under former dictator Enver Hoxha, who declared Albania the world`s first atheist state in 1967, and during whose reign priests and imams were persecuted and holy places razed.
"1,820 churches, Orthodox and Catholic, were destroyed in that period. Destroyed! And other churches were transformed into cinemas, theatres, dance halls. I felt like I should go," Francis said.
Between 1945 and 1985, 111 priests, 10 seminarians and seven bishops died in detention or were executed.
It will be the second papal visit to Albania. Pope John Paul II travelled there the year after Communism collapsed in the country in 1992.
The current pope "is not beginning his trips to Europe in Berlin, Paris or London. His focus is on those who are not the most rich or powerful," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told journalists.
Albania is not a country which usually ranks very high on the papal travel list: before John Paul II, the last pope to set their sights on Albania, Pius II, reportedly died on the way there in 1464.
But it is very in keeping with the Argentine pope`s trademark rejection of the rich in favour of the poor, marginalised or vulnerable.
Francis joked that "there are those who say the pope tends to start everything from the periphery", but insisted on Albania`s importance, describing it as a nation of "noble people."
About two-thirds of the population are Muslim, followed by Catholics -- accounting for 15 percent of the population, and the Orthodox church at 11 percent.
In a country with one of the youngest populations in Europe, the Vatican will be hoping to exploit the potential to recruit new faithful and boost the number of Catholic believers in a continent gripped by secularism.
Francis will almost certainly echo John Paul II`s message to the freshly post-Communist country given in an emotional mass during which he cried out "dear Albanians, your drama must interest the whole European continent. Europe must not forget."