Pope Francis has delivered prayers and speeches in North Macedonia, the birthplace of Mother Theresa. He has urged for unity in a country struggling with deepening political division.
The first ever papal visit to North Macedonia since the former Yugoslav republic gained independence in 1991 began Tuesday as Pope Francis touched down in the capital, Skopje.
The pontiff urged the Balkans to embrace its patchwork of faiths and ethnicities during a speech to preach a message of tolerance in the country, which is deeply divided along ethnic, political and religious grounds.
Francis attracted people of all faiths, who have been vying to get tickets for the main event, a mid-morning mass in Skopje's main square during which the pontiff repeatedly refered to Mother Teresa — the city's most famous native.
Francis praised the "crucible of cultures and ethnic and religious identities" in "your land, a bridge between East and West."
A colorful 'mosaic' to cherish
North Macedonia is deeply divided along ethnic, political and religious grounds. Less than 1% of the country's 2.1 million population is Roman Catholic — the majority being Orthodox Christian and a sizable minority Albanian Muslim.
Ahead of the visit, Francis praised North Macedonia's patchwork of cultures, saying 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."
Read more: Macedonia: What's in a name?
The pope's plea for unity may in part be aimed at easing a deep political divide, one which has festered since Zaev's center-left government struck a deal with neighboring Greece.
Under the terms, the country's official name became North Macedonia, rather than Macedonia, to differentiate it from a Greek region of the same name. However, the change — which should ease Macedonia's entry into the EU and which ended Greek objections to it joining NATO — had proved controversial.
The country held presidential elections on Sunday which saw pro-West candidate Stevo Pendarovski win by a narrow margin.
The landlocked nation is one of the poorest in Europe, with an average wage of about 400 euros ($450) per month.
Bulgarian visit ruffles feathers
The pope is on a three-day tour of the Balkans having already visited Bulgaria, where he argued his case for the country to do more to welcome refugees.
The visit drew criticism from Bulgaria's Orthodox church, which remains deeply suspicious of the pontiff and his motives.
One prominent cleric, Metropolitan Nikolay of Plovdiv, called it a "political act,” and an "attack on the Orthodoxy.” No Bulgarian Orthodox leader attended an interfaith peace meeting in the capital, Sofia, on Monday evening.
kw,rc/rt (AFP, KNA)