Pope arrives to preach unity in polarized North Macedonia

Posted in 07 May 2019

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Pope Francis has met leaders in North Macedonia, the birthplace of Mother Theresa. He is expected to preach a message of 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 pope expected to preach a message of tolerance in the country, which is deeply divided along ethnic, political and religious grounds.

Upon his arrival, Francis was greeted at the airport by Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and President Gjorge Ivanov.

Less than 1% of the country's 2.1 million population is Roman Catholic - the majority being Orthodox and a sizable minority Albanian Muslims.

However, people of all faiths have been vying to get tickets for the main event, a mass in Skopje's main square that will commemorate Mother Teresa - the city's most famous native.

A colorful 'mosaic' to cherish

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."

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.