Visit by Pope Francis Helps Put North Macedonia on the Map


SKOPJE, North Macedonia — With its bitter naming dispute with Greece finally settled and NATO membership expected by the end of the year, North Macedonia on Tuesday received another sign that its nearly three decades of international isolation are ending: the country’s first papal visit.

At a gathering with senior government figures, Pope Francis praised North Macedonia as “a bridge between the East and West,” said that its history of diversity would serve it well in a closer relationship with European nations. He also expressed hope that “integration will develop in a way that is beneficial for the entire Western Balkans.”

The country declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 as the Republic of Macedonia, but its diplomatic aspirations were long blocked by neighboring Greece, which considered that name a potential claim to its own northern province. Both sides agreed to the name North Macedonia this year as part of a deal to normalize relations and potentially to ease the country’s path into the European Union.

Not all of those at the gathering shared the pope’s enthusiasm for these developments. President Gjorge Ivanov, who represents a conservative party that considers the name deal treasonous, told the pope that his visit had come at the time of “great divisions” in the country, which he referred to as the Republic of Macedonia.

“The Catholic Church has always recognized that our church has suffered a historical and cultural injustice with continued refusal to recognize our autonomy,” Metropolitan Timothy told the local news media on the eve of the pope’s visit. The Vatican “lends us support in the ecumenical dialogue without antagonizing other Orthodox churches,” he added.

During the Mass, the pope warned against materialism and disinformation.

“We thought that conformism would satisfy our thirst, yet we ended up drinking only indifference and insensitivity,” he said. “We gorged ourselves on networking, and lost the taste of fraternity,” ending up lonely and “overwhelmed by impatience and anxiety.”

The Rev. Goce Kostov, a priest who works in Strumica, near the border with Greece, said that Francis, like Mother Teresa, had made it his mission to visit faraway places and reach people who had been neglected, abandoned and forgotten.

“He goes to the periphery — and where are we here, if not on the periphery, economic, geographic and political periphery?” Father Goce said in an interview.

North Macedonia’s Catholic Church is made up largely of young people, he said, and is struggling with the same primary problem as the country’s Christian Orthodox and Muslims.

“They are leaving in droves, moving away from their country to seek better opportunities in the West,” Father Goce said. “We need to find ways to improve and keep them here.”



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