The FINANCIAL — Pope Francis has arrived in North Macedonia for the first-ever papal visit to the country.
Francis was welcomed in the capital, Skopje, by North Macedonia’s outgoing president, Gjorge Ivanov, and other government officials and is expected to hold a large Mass in the city’s main square.
He has sought to encourage the country’s drive toward integration into the EU and NATO after its name change resolved a decades-long dispute with Greece last year.
Like neighboring Bulgaria — Francis’s first stop on his three-day Balkan tour — North Macedonia, a small Balkan country of 2.1 million, is mainly Orthodox Christian.
But the country has a large community of ethnic Albanian Muslims, who make about one-quarter of the population. North Macedonia is home to an estimated 15,000 Catholics.
In a meeting with the country’s leadership, Francis praised North Macedonia’s multiethnic and multifaith culture, calling it an example of peaceful coexistence and a bridge between East and West.
“These particular features are also highly significant for increased integration with the nations of Europe,” he said.
“It is my hope that this integration will develop in a way that is beneficial for the entire region of the Western Balkans, with unfailing respect for diversity and for fundamental rights.”
Viktor Dimovski, state secretary of North Macedonia’s Foreign Ministry, told the media that the pope’s historic visit comes at a crucial moment as the country seeks entry into the European Union and NATO.
“The pope’s visit strengthens further internal cohesion and unity, and brings messages of reconciliation and solidarity,” he said.
The pope’s visit also included a prayer at the memorial of North Macedonia’s most famous native daughter, Mother Teresa, who was born Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu to Albanian parents in 1910 in Skopje when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire.
Francis was surrounded by Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity nuns in praying before the memorial. Mother Teresa was canonized by Francis in 2016.
Ahead of his visit, Francis praised the mix of cultures, religions, and ethnicities in North Macedonia, and said he was traveling there to “sow these seeds” of solidarity.
“Living together is not always easy, we know that,” the pope said in a video message. “But it’s worth struggling toward, because the most beautiful mosaics are the ones that are richest in colors.”
With the name dispute with Greece now resolved, North Macedonia, which has been an EU aspirant since 2005, hopes to get a clear signal for the start of accession talks in June. Skopje also expects to become the 30th NATO member at the end of the year.
Stevo Pendarovski, who was elected president in a runoff election on May 5, said he saw his victory as a “ticket for NATO and EU.”
With reporting by AFP, AP, and Reuters