Saturday May 25, 2019
Home Lead Story “Visit ...

“Visit Strengthens Further Internal Cohesion and Unity”: Pope Francis Meets Leaders of North Macedonia

Ahead of his visit, Francis praised the mix of cultures, religions, and ethnicities in North Macedonia, and said he was traveling there to "sow these seeds" of solidarity.

0
//
Pope Francis
Pope Francis greets the crowds in Skopje on May 7. RFERL

Pope Francis, who is on a historic first trip to North Macedonia, has met with the country’s leadership and held Mass in the main square of the capital, Skopje.

Francis was welcomed by the outgoing president, Gjorge Ivanov, and other government officials.

He has sought to encourage the country’s drive toward integration into the EU and NATO after its name change resolved a decades-long dispute with Greece last year.

Like neighboring Bulgaria — Francis’s first stop on his three-day Balkan tour — North Macedonia, a small Balkan country of 2.1 million, is mainly Orthodox Christian.

But the country has a large community of ethnic Albanian Muslims, who make about one-quarter of the population. North Macedonia is home to an estimated 15,000 Catholics.

In meetings with Ivanov and with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev at the presidential palace, Francis praised North Macedonia’s multiethnic and multifaith culture, calling it an example of peaceful coexistence and a bridge between East and West.

“These particular features are also highly significant for increased integration with the nations of Europe,” he said.

Christian
Like neighboring Bulgaria — Francis’s first stop on his three-day Balkan tour — North Macedonia, a small Balkan country of 2.1 million, is mainly Orthodox Christian. VOA

“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.”

In his speech, President Ivanov complained about delays in accepting Macedonia in the Euro-Atlantic family.

“You come at a time when [North] Macedonian society is deeply divided, and the [North] Macedonian [nation] is heavily wounded by broken promises, unfulfilled expectations and faltering trust in the international community,” he said.

Viktor Dimovski, state secretary of North Macedonia’s Foreign Ministry, told the media on May 6 that the pope’s historic visit comes at a crucial moment as the country seeks entry into the European Union and NATO.

“The pope’s visit strengthens further internal cohesion and unity, and brings messages of reconciliation and solidarity,” he said.

The pope’s visit also included a prayer at the memorial of North Macedonia’s most famous native daughter, Mother Teresa, who was born Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu to Albanian parents in 1910 in Skopje when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire.

Francis was surrounded by Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity nuns in praying before the memorial. Mother Teresa was canonized by Francis in 2016.

Ahead of his visit, Francis praised the mix of cultures, religions, and ethnicities in North Macedonia, and said 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.”

muslims
But the country has a large community of ethnic Albanian Muslims, who make about one-quarter of the population. Pixabay

With the name dispute with Greece now resolved, North Macedonia, which has been an EU aspirant since 2005, hopes to get a clear signal for the start of accession talks in June. Skopje also expects to become the 30th NATO member at the end of the year.

Also Read: Puppeteers Bring Message of Harmony, Love, Tolerance in Pakistan’s Karachi

Stevo Pendarovski, who was elected president in a runoff election on May 5, said he saw his victory as a “ticket for NATO and EU.”

Six Western Balkan countries — Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia — are in various stages of the accession process to join the EU. (RFERL)

Next Story

Voters in North Macedonia Gear Up For Presidential Elections

The campaign itself has been rather low-key by Macedonian standards, with virtually none of the violence, dirty tricks, and sharp nationalist rhetoric that has marked previous votes.

0
Macedonia
And then there were two: North Macedonian presidential runoff candidates Stevo Pendarovski (left) and Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova. RFERL

Voters in North Macedonia will choose a new president on May 5 in a runoff vote that will be watched as closely for turnout as it will be for either candidate.

Stevo Pendarovski and Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova face off in the balloting after a virtual draw — 42.8 percent to 42.2 percent respectively — in the first round on April 21.

That close outcome has put a spotlight on the Balkan nation’s ethnic Albanian minority, who strongly supported Blerim Reka in the first round, giving him 10.6 percent of the vote.

With Reka out of the runoff race, a lot will depend on whether his supporters even decide to cast ballots, and if so, for whom.

If fewer than 40 percent of the country’s 1.8 million eligible voters show up for the runoff, the election automatically becomes invalid.

democracy
Outgoing President Gjorge Ivanov was constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive five-year term. Pixabay

About one quarter of the population is ethnic Albanian, and overall turnout in the first round was just 41.8 percent.

“I am calling on all of our citizens to go to the polls and vote by your own choice, but vote for the future of our country and of our children,” Prime Minister Zoran Zaev urged Macedonians in a video address.

Low-Key Campaign

The campaign itself has been rather low-key by Macedonian standards, with virtually none of the violence, dirty tricks, and sharp nationalist rhetoric that has marked previous votes.

While the president has a largely ceremonial role, the position does have some powers to veto legislation and Zaev has warned that the outcome of the runoff could trigger early parliamentary elections.

The race itself between the two academics has been dominated by debate on issues such as integration into Western structures and a struggling economy, plagued by stubbornly high unemployment at more than 20 percent.

Pendarovski, a 55-year-old former political-science professor, has strongly supported the so-called Prespa deal signed with Greece last year to change the country’s name, while Siljanovska-Davkova, the country’s first female candidate and a university professor, has been critical of it, though the opposition has said it will not cancel the accord.

The signing of the historic agreement with Greece changed the country’s name to North Macedonia and ended a decades-long dispute that had blocked the Balkan state’s path to NATO and the historic agreement.

Pro-Western Pendarovski is supported by the ruling Social Democrats. Siljanovska-Davkova, 63, ran as an independent but is now backed by the main conservative opposition VMRO-DPMNE party.

Macedonia's parliament speaker, Talat Xhaferi, might have to assume the president's duties if turnout is too low. (file photo)
Macedonia’s parliament speaker, Talat Xhaferi, might have to assume the president’s duties if turnout is too low. RFERL
 

If turnout fails to reach the minimum requirement, constitutional experts say a completely new vote must be called within 40 days.

During the interim period, the head of the National Assembly, Talat Xhaferi, would assume the function of president.

Outgoing President Gjorge Ivanov was constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive five-year term.

Once a part of Yugoslavia, North Macedonia left Belgrade’s umbrella when it seceded peacefully in 1991.

Also Read: WhatsApp Pay in India A Tough Call For Digital Payments Leader in The Country

But it veered close to civil war in 2001 when ethnic Albanians launched an armed insurgency seeking greater autonomy, and subsequent elections have been stormy.

Polling stations open at 7 a.m. local time and will remain open until 7 p.m. (RFERL)