Pope Francis condemned the "distortion and manipulation" of religious belief by extremists yesterday during a one-day visit to Albania in which he held up the tiny nation as a model of religious harmony.
In what was interpreted as a reference to the savage rule of Isil and the sectarian violence sweeping other parts of the Muslim world, the pontiff said that nobody should use God as a "shield" with which to justify "acts of violence and oppression".
On his first European trip outside Italy, and his first to a Muslim-majority country, the Pope said that "authentic religious spirit is being perverted" in many parts of the world and that "religious differences are being distorted and manipulated".
The Pope was greeted by flag-waving crowds as he was driven through the capital, Tirana, in an open-topped car, despite warnings by the Iraqi ambassador to the Holy See that Isil might be plotting to kill him while there.
Security was tight, with snipers on rooftops, hundreds of officers controlling the crowds and frequent bag checks, but a Vatican spokesman said there were "no particular reasons for concern".
He spoke warmly of Albania, a country of three million people where around 60pc are Muslim, 15pc Catholic and the rest Christian Orthodox, but where religion was suppressed for decades under the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha.
"There is a rather beautiful characteristic of Albania, one which gives me great joy: I am referring to the peaceful coexistence and collaboration that exists among followers of different religions," the Pope said. "The climate of respect and mutual trust between Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims is a precious gift to the country."
Later he met representatives of Albania's Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim communities and told them that religious intolerance was an "insidious enemy".
Elderly men wearing fez-like hats stood next to women in traditional costumes, as Catholics who had travelled from neighbouring Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro waved flags. One man held up a placard which read "I love the Bible and Koran because I am Albanian."
The Pope celebrated Mass in a square named after Mother Theresa, one of Albania's most revered national figures. He said he had once met the formidable nun, an ethnic Albanian born in Macedonia.
"I remember thinking, I'm glad she wasn't my Mother Superior," he joked. (© Daily Telegraph, London)