SKOPJE, North Macedonia -- Pope Francis made the first-ever papal visit to North Macedonia on Tuesday and sought to encourage its efforts to integrate into European institutions after its name change resolved a decades-long dispute with Greece.
In a meeting with government authorities, Francis praised North Macedonia's multi-ethnic and multi-faith culture and said its example of being a bridge between East and West showed that peaceful coexistence can exist in a country rich with diversity.
"These particular features are also highly significant for increased integration with the nations of Europe," he said. "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."
North Macedonia's previous constitutional name was the Republic of Macedonia. It officially changed its name to North Macedonia in February as part of an agreement to end an almost three-decade long dispute with Greece, which blocked the former Yugoslav republic's path to membership in NATO and the EU over rights to the Macedonia name.
After landing at Skopje's airport, Francis went by car — a typically small Volkswagen Jetta — for talks with outgoing President Gjore Ivanov. His 10-hour visit also included a prayer at the memorial of North Macedonia's most famous native daughter, Mother Teresa, as well as a Mass for the tiny Catholic community in the country of 2.1 million.
Francis was surrounded by Mother Teresa's sari-clad Sisters of Charity nuns in praying before the memorial, a giant statue of the tiny nun, located outside the remains of the church where Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was baptized in 1910.
In his homily at Mass, Francis praised Mother Teresa's dedication to the poor, saying it quenched her hunger for God.
"She went to the Lord exactly as she went to the despised, the unloved, the lonely and the forgotten," Francis said to a crowd in a central Skopje square that organizers estimated at 15,000 gathered.
Viktor Dimovski, North Macedonia's foreign ministry state secretary, told reporters Monday that Francis' visit was historic and comes at a crucial moment as North Macedonia 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 country has been an EU candidate since 2005, but is still waiting for the start of membership talks with the bloc. With the name dispute now resolved, North Macedonia hopes to get a clear signal for the start of accession talks in June. It expects to become the 30th NATO member at the end of this year.
But the country is deeply polarized between the governing Social Democrats, who support the name deal, and the opposition VMRO-DPMNE conservatives, fierce opponents of the name change.
Ivanov, the outgoing president, referred to the divisions in his speech to the pope, urging Macedonians to use the visit as an opportunity to heal after being "heavily wounded by broken promises, unfulfilled expectations and faltering trust in the international community."
"Only spiritually transformed people can transform the spirit of society," Ivanov said.
Pro-EU President Stevo Pendarovski, who was elected president in a runoff election last weekend, said he saw his victory as a "ticket for NATO and EU."
While the visit was a political boost for North Macedonia, it was also a spiritual boost for Catholics from across the region and ethnic spectrum.
"It is magnificent that we came to see the pope here in Macedonia because he has a message for the youth and whole humanity, and we need to apply it in our lives," said Kristiana Mjeshtri, a Catholic from Albania.
Ivan Giljanovic traveled from Split, Croatia. "I am a Catholic and it means a lot for me," he said. "Everything is about faith."
AP producer Florent Bajrami contributed.