This story originated in VOA’s Macedonian Service.
SKOPJE, NORTH MACEDONIA — Amid tight security and raucous fanfare, Pope Francis made a historic first visit to North Macedonia on Tuesday, attracting an estimated 15,000 people of all faiths to Skopje’s main square for a midmorning Mass.
The highest profile international figure to visit since the country changed its name from Macedonia in January, Francis first addressed officials at Skopje’s presidential palace, where he called the small Balkan nation “a crucible of cultures and ethnic and religious identities,” and a “bridge between East and West” that proves peaceful coexistence can prevail within a richly diverse country.
While North Macedonia’s estimated 15,000 Roman Catholics represent but a small fraction of its 2.1 million residents, which include a large Muslim minority that is ethnically Albanian, throngs of onlookers and faithful alike spent hours awaiting a glimpse of the pontiff from cordoned public viewing areas across the capital.
The crowd repeatedly broke into cheers when he came into view.
After praying at the memorial of the country’s most famous native daughter, Mother Teresa, Pope Francis began his homily on Skopje’s Macedonia Square urging people across the Balkans to embrace their regional patchwork of faiths and ethnicities.
Invoking biblical passages about hunger, the pontiff said, “hunger for bread has other names, too” before launching into a tirade against disinformation.
“We have become accustomed to eating the stale bread of disinformation and ending up as prisoners of dishonor, labels and ignominy,” he said in an obvious reference the country’s fractious political climate.
“We thought that conformism would satisfy our thirst, yet we ended up drinking only indifference and insensitivity. ... We looked for quick and safe results, only to find ourselves overwhelmed by impatience and anxiety,” he said. “Prisoners of a virtual reality, we lost the taste and flavor of the truly real.”
Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov said the pope’s visit comes at a crucial moment in North Macedonia’s drive to join the EU and NATO.
Having resolved a longstanding name dispute with neighboring Greece, whose leaders had vowed to block Macedonia’s EU candidacy, Skopje is hoping to see European Union accession talks start in June and is aiming to be NATO’s 30th member by the end of the year.
“I encourage you to keep walking on the chosen path and to make your country a beacon of peace, hospitality and integration,” the pontiff told the masses gathered in Skopje.
In Pope Francis’ meeting with government officials, President Gjorge Ivanov, a conservative firebrand who represents a party that opposed the name deal, told the pontiff his visit coincides with “great divisions” in the country, which he called by its former moniker, the Republic of Macedonia.
Ivanov is days from reaching his term limit, when he will be replaced by newly elected Stevo Pendarovski, who supports the name deal and a trans-Atlantic future for Macedonia.
Asked to comment, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who brokered the name deal, said: “today is not about politics.”
“There is joy all around, and hope after we showed courage in our decisions,” he said, adding that the name deal itself is proof “that cooperation in the region is possible.”
At Skopje’s Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, his final stop before departing, Francis met with priests, the religious faithful and their families.
North Macedonia’s president and prime minister were among the officials who traveled to the airport to bid the 82-year-old pontiff farewell.
Some information from AP, AFP. Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the foreign minister of North Macedonia. VOA regrets the error.