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  • Jerome Kocher

54. Religious Tolerance

A shocking surprise is that thirty-two years after the fall of a brutal Communist dictatorship, Albania is more tolerant, liberal and open minded than many of its neighbors.

Under Communism Albania was declared an “atheist state’ in 1967. Religion was banned with horrible consequences. But you can’t forcibly change people’s beliefs overnight. In the Catholic north some fled to the mountains while others were martyred.

Today Albania is 60% Muslim, 30% Christian Orthodox or Catholic and 10% Atheist. And even though Albania is a Muslim majority country, it is very much a secular society today with tremendous religious toleration for each other. Ironically, it seems one silver lining to communism was that the separation of religion from the state or public life has bred an acceptance of all religions rather than a censorship. People’s religious identification is mostly a family tradition and not one of devout practice.

Here are a few anecdotal impressions I encountered regarding religious diversity today:

One of our guides said he and his father and brothers were atheists. His mother was Muslim. Not a problem. They celebrated the religious holidays together.

While hiking to the Theth waterfall in the Dinaric Alps, we met an older Norwegian hiker who said he had been here before. With a friend he had actually hiked over several alpine passes without trails. Why? He wanted to experience the harsh conditions of Catholic resisters who retreated into the mountains and trekked down to trade their pelts in order to survive.

Pope Francis went to the Muslim majority country of Albania in 2014 in his first European trip outside of Italy. One goal was to canonize forty martyred Catholic clerics who resisted the communist ban on religion. The Forty Martyrs are commemorated at St. Paul’s church in Shkodra.

Most Albanians I’ve met would say religion is not a driving force in their lives. It’s more of a custom or tradition. In this sense, Albania, as a candidate for European Union membership, would fit right in with its secular Western European allies. Ironically, the communist ban on religion which created an atheist state that brutalized religious resisters has more than 50 years later resulted in the opposite, a tolerant and diverse community of faiths.

Kosovo is no different. It is even more of a Muslim majority country than Albania. But today if it were not for the minarets and call to prayer, you may not realize you are in a Muslim country. The women are rarely covered. If you see black burkas they are probably tourists from Saudi Arabia. Maybe ten percent actually practice a faith. For the rest their faith is just a family tradition which celebrates maybe two holidays a year. I had mentioned earlier that during the ‘98-99 war in Gjakova the Catholics sheltered the Muslims in their church as a safe sanctuary from Serbian aggression.

In the capital of Kosovo the main city center promenade is named after Mother Theresa, as well as a beautiful Catholic church. I doubt you would find this in Saudi Arabia. If you go into the pristine white interior of the church you will notice the wonderful display of colored stain glass windows.

Look closely at the bottom of each and you will see the name of the family who donated that window. And most all of their addresses are in New York. And they probably are even Muslim families because religion is not their defining factor. They are ethnic Albanians giving back to their country and building it up.

Although a Muslim majority country, the most universally commemorated person happens to be a Catholic saint. Every major city in Kosovo will have a monument to Mother Theresa. And in Tirana, the capital of Albania, the main international airport is named “Nene Tereze.” This goes beyond religion. Mother Theresa is Albanian.

The Balkans are sometimes called the Middle East of Europe for the obvious reasons of past historical conflict whether religious or ethnic. It was the boundary battlefield between the Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe. Even the word “balkanization” is used in the English language to denote a fracturing or splitting apart of almost irreconcilable groups.

In the larger Balkan region, it does seem that ethnicity is more divisive than religion, but Serbia’s genocidal war against Kosovo definitely had a religious component. Though today, for Albania and Kosovo religion is not one of those fault lines. They are not just tolerant of each other, they are accepting of each other’s profession of faith.

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BlueFlame NoenDragon
BlueFlame NoenDragon
06 may

Respect of one and another's religion is a beautiful concept. Only if we the people can recognize each other's peaceful rich history, purpose, and love for their country. Setting aside this war.

-Catherine Torres

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