TIRANA - Pope Francis warned during a visit to Albania on Sunday that religion can never be used to justify violence, making apparent reference to the bloodshed wreaked by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
The 77-year-old pontiff said majority-Muslim Albania was an "inspiring example" of religious harmony, as hundreds of thousands thronged the streets of the capital Tirana to greet him.
In a speech to leaders of Albania's religious communities - including Muslim, Orthodox Bektashi, Jewish and Protestant - Francis took aim at extremists he accused of perverting religion for their own ends.
"No one must use the name of God to commit violence," the spiritual leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics said at the Catholic University.
"To kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege. To discriminate in the name of God is inhuman."
In an earlier speech to government officials he also praised the peaceful coexistence of Albania's Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims, labelling it "a precious gift to the country".
He said it was especially important "in these times where an authentic religious spirit is being perverted and where religious differences are being distorted".
The remarks were widely seen as a reference to Nigeria's Boko Haram militants as well as the Islamic State group, which espouses a radical and brutal interpretation of Islam to pursue a dream of reviving a caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
"Let no one consider themselves to be the 'armour' of God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression," the pontiff told officials at the presidential palace in Tirana.
Local authorities stepped up security after warnings from Iraq that the IS jihadists could be planning an attack on the pope, although the Holy See downplayed such concerns.
The pontiff's trip to Albania came at a sensitive time, during turmoil in the Middle East and rising religious intolerance in Europe.
'Land of martyrs'
Yellow-and-white Vatican flags flew alongside Albanian ones in Tirana's main streets while vast portraits of Catholic priests and nuns persecuted under Communism - when Albania became the world's first atheist state - were strung across roads.
Some believers waved welcome banners while others chanted: "Papa Francesco! Papa Francesco!"
While celebrating mass at the central Mother Teresa square under light rain, the pope honoured those who suffered under former communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled from 1945 to 1985.
Under his rule, scores of priests and imams were executed or persecuted while many churches and mosques were razed.