Pope Francis on Tuesday implicitly blessed efforts by North Macedonia and other Balkan countries to join the European Union, saying Skopje could look to its most famous daughter, Mother Teresa, as a stimulus to build a common destiny. After two days in Bulgaria, Francis arrived in the North Macedonian capital for a 10-hour stop, becoming the highest-profile international figure to visit since the country changed its name from Macedonia in January.
The decision ended a decades-old dispute with neighbouring Greece, whose northernmost province is also called Macedonia, and opened the way for North Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic, to join the European Union and NATO. Addressing authorities in Skopje's presidential palace, Francis praised what he called the newly named country's "crucible of cultures and ethnic and religious identities" that could serve as an example to others.
"These particular features are also highly significant for increased integration with the nations of Europe. 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," Francis said. Six Western Balkan states - Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia - are in various stages of the accession process to join the bloc.
But in his speech, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov complained bitterly about delays. "You come at a time when Macedonian society is deeply divided, and the Macedonian (nation) is heavily wounded by broken promises, unfulfilled expectations and faltering trust in the international community," Ivanov said. He said "decades of blockades on our European path" had led to diminished spiritual and political morale. Skopje has aspired to NATO and EU membership since the end of a 2001 uprising by the country's ethnic Albanian minority, but was blocked by Greece, which held that the name Macedonia implied a territorial claim on its own northern province.
Yet even after cutting the name change deal with Greece, North Macedonia has not yet received the date for starting EU accession talks, though it is expected to become NATO's 30th member state next year. Nearly every event on the pope's programme in Skopje revolved around the late Mother Teresa, who was born Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu to ethnic Albanian parents in 1910 when the country was still part of the Ottoman Empire.
Francis praised Mother Teresa for working to unify people and urged Ivanov to take her example. "I encourage you to persevere with confidence along the path you have taken in order to make your country a beacon of peace, acceptance and fruitful integration between cultures, religions and peoples," Francis said. Mother Teresa was known as the "saint of the gutters" for her work among the poor in India. She died in 1997 and was officially made a saint by Pope Francis in 2016.
(With inputs from agencies.)