TIRANA (AFP) – Albania upped security on Saturday as it prepared to host Pope Francis amid warnings that the Islamic State extremists could be planning an attack on the pontiff in the mainly-Muslim country.
Plainclothes police were out on the streets of the capital Tirana, with some 2,500 officers due to be deployed for the pope’s visit on Sunday, his first to a European country.
Iraq’s ambassador to the Holy See had warned ahead of the visit that the 77-year-old pontiff could be in danger from the group after the Holy See voiced support for US air strikes targetting the extremists in Iraq, in a rare exception to its policy of peaceful conflict resolution.
The Vatican has up to now shrugged off the warning, saying that security measures in Albania would remain unchanged for the pontiff, who regularly throws caution to the wind to mingle with the crowds.
Francis 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, it said.
The pope will travel a day after Italian media reported that security had been tightened in Saint Peter’s Square after intelligence services intercepted a possible plan to attack the Vatican.
The report comes days after Iraq’s ambassador to the Holy See, Habib Al Sadr, said in an interview with Italian media that “what has been declared by the self-declared Islamic State is clear. They want to kill the pope. The threats against the pope are credible.”
And the Corriere della Sera daily cited a unidentified source in Tirana as saying: “The jihadists have always claimed that their final objective was Rome. But if Rome comes to Tirana, even for a few hours, that objective becomes even simpler.”
On Saturday, the Vatican and Albanian flags were placed along some ten-kilometre (six-mile) long road leading from Tirana’s Mother Teresa airport, where the pope was to arrive, to the city centre.
In Tirana, municipal employees were busy on Saturday cleaning the streets and planting flowers on the pope’s planned itinerary.
Throughout the city, giant billboards have been put up showing the smiling pontiff with a raised arm and message: “I say to all the peoples: it’s possible to work together.”
For the visit, traders were offering souvenirs and the Albanian post has issued a stamp with the pope’s image.
The pope’s visit is aimed at showcasing peace between religions as the pontiff pays tribute to those who suffered under Communism and praises a political system under which religions unite.
The Communist regime of Enver Hoxha in 1967 declared Albania the first atheist country in the world.
Between 1945 and 1985, 111 priests, 10 seminarians and seven bishops died in detention or were executed while scores of churches and mosques were destroyed.
About two-thirds of Albania’s population of some three million are Muslim. They are followed by Catholics – accounting for 15 per cent of the population, and the Orthodox making 11 per cent, with the communities living peacefully.