Iraq’s Ambassador to the Holy See is warning that Pope Francis could be targeted by ISIS militants ahead of the pontiff’s first visit to Albania this weekend.
The Vatican is not beefing up security to protect Francis during his upcoming trip to the majority Muslim country on Sunday, despite warnings from Habeeb Al Sadr, who said there are credible threats against the pope’s life, according to an Italian newspaper cited in The Telegraph.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said Monday that Francis would use the same open-topped vehicle he uses in St. Peter's Square when he greets crowds in the poor Balkan nation. Vatican security officials are "calm" ahead of the 11-hour visit, he said.
Lombardi said that while there is general concern about the Islamic State threat, "there are no specific threats or risks that would change the pope's behavior or the way the trip is organized."
But Al Sadr says the pope has made himself a target by speaking out against ISIS and the atrocities suffered by Christians in Iraq and Syria.
"What has been declared by the self-declared Islamic State is clear – they want to kill the pope. The threats against the pope are credible," he told La Nazione on Tuesday, according to The Telegraph. "I believe they could try to kill him during one of his overseas trips or even in Rome. There are members of ISIL who are not Arabs but Canadian, American, French, British, also Italians.”
Francis has said he wanted to visit Albania to highlight the rebirth of Christianity that was brutally wiped out during communist rule, and to showcase how Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims are working together now to govern the country.
Italian news reports, citing unnamed sources, have said Albanian law enforcement had flagged to Interpol concerns that Muslim militants who trained in Iraq and Syria had returned and might pose a threat to Francis.
Francis' decision to visit tiny Albania before any major European capital is in keeping with his desire for the church to go to the "periphery." It also confirms his desire to encourage once-persecuted Christian communities.
Like other religions, Catholicism suffered gravely under Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, who declared Albania the world's first atheist state in 1967. Many Catholics were killed, tortured, imprisoned or sent to labor camps. The ban on religions ended in the early 1990s and St. John Paul II visited in 1993.
During his brief visit, Francis will address Albanian authorities and an interreligious gathering, celebrate Mass in a square named for Albania's most famous Catholic — Mother Teresa — and greet children cared for by charitable groups.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.