SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — Pope Francis made the first-ever papal visit to North Macedonia on Tuesday and sought to encourage its efforts to integrate into European institutions after its name change resolved a decades-long dispute with Greece.
In a meeting with government authorities, Francis praised North Macedonia's multi-ethnic and multi-faith culture and said its example of being a bridge between East and West showed that peaceful coexistence can exist in a country rich with diversity.
"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."
North Macedonia's previous constitutional name was the Republic of Macedonia. It officially changed its name to North Macedonia in February as part of an agreement to end an almost three-decade long dispute with Greece, which blocked the former Yugoslav republic's path to membership in NATO and the EU over rights to the Macedonia name.
After landing at Skopje's airport, Francis went by car — a typically small Volkswagen Jetta — for talks with outgoing President Gjore Ivanov. His 10-hour visit also included a prayer at the memorial of North Macedonia's most famous native daughter, Mother Teresa, as well as a Mass for the tiny Catholic community in the country of 2.1 million.
Francis was surrounded by Mother Teresa's sari-clad Sisters of Charity nuns in praying before the memorial, a giant statue of the tiny nun, located outside the remains of the church where Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was baptized in 1910.
In his homily at Mass, Francis praised Mother Teresa's dedication to the poor, saying it quenched her hunger for God.