Is Albania the last beacon of religious tolerance in Europe?

Is Albania the last beacon of religious tolerance in Europe?

Tirana’s Kavajes Street is an example of Albania’s famed religious tolerance in microcosm. As well as the Dine Hoxha Mosque (pictured) a Catholic church and Orthodox church are situated nearby and worshippers at all three institutions live, work and socialise together.

(Máire Rowland)

It is 8pm on a Friday evening on leafy Kavajes Street in the bustling Albanian capital of Tirana, and the call to prayer from the Dine Hoxha Mosque resounds loudly through the city centre. Amidst the evening hustle and bustle it is difficult to distinguish the hurried commuters from those going to the mosque for evening prayers, or those who might attend communion at the nearby Catholic church on Sunday morning, or even the congregation of the nearby Orthodox church.

This central thoroughfare is home to believers – and non-believers – of all stripes; Albanians who socialise, go to school, work and live together with ease. In fact, Kavajes Street is an example of Albania’s famed religious tolerance in microcosm. According to the latest census figures from 2011, over half (56.7 per cent) of Albania’s 2.8 million population are self-declared Muslims, the majority of which are Sunni, ten per cent are Catholics, almost 7 per cent identify as Orthodox, 5.5 per cent say they do not have a religion, 2.5 per cent identify as atheist or members of a minority religion, while 2.1 per cent are members of the Bektashi Order (a form of Balkan Sufism which is headquartered in Albania).

In 2014, Pope Francis chose Albania, a majority-Muslim country, as the destination of his first European visit outside of Italy. In May 2017, following a visit to the small south-eastern European country, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Religion and Belief Ahmed Shaheed noted:

“Freedom of religion or belief is a practical reality in Albania, and there is much the world can learn from the Albanian experience in respecting freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief, and achieving inter-religious harmony.”

In a second floor Tirana café amongst the sound of 1980s synth music and chattering coffee drinkers, Bishop Andon Merdani of the Albanian Orthodox Church agrees. He fondly remembers a moment when he experienced the powerful and positive impact of Albania’s inter-faith unity.

“After the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, the Albanian Prime Minister invited religious leaders to accompany him to Paris to express condolences and participate in the march against extremism,” Bishop Merdani tells Equal Times. “We went to the offices of Charlie Hebdo and laid a flower there together. After we walked down the streets of Paris, a Muslim, an Orthodox, a Catholic, a Bektashi – all of us wearing our religious clothing and accessories, walking together, talking together, simply because we are friends.”

He continues: “We could feel the tension in the air at that time, you could sense the atmosphere, but when the local people saw us all together, they started clapping and shouting ‘Bravo!’. For us it was so normal to be walking together, but in Paris it was something very special. The people continued to cheer and clap, and the atmosphere became joyous as we walked through the streets.”

Religious practice in an atheist state

The path to religious harmony and peaceful co-existence has not been straightforward for Albania. Although successive post-communist governments have encouraged inter-religious harmony by taking a neutral position towards religious communities, enforcing a legal framework that guarantees freedom of religion and actively promoting inter-faith cooperation, this has not always been the case.

Following occupation by both the Italians and the Germans during the Second World War, Albania was ruled by Enver Hoxha’s Marxist-Leninist dictatorship for over 40 years. Secret police rounded up anyone who challenged the regime, most citizens were forbidden from travelling abroad, religion was outlawed and some religious leaders were assassinated.

In 1967, Albania declared itself an atheist state. Religious persecution continued until the fall of communism in 1990, at which point Albanians embraced their religious identities once again. Believers of all faiths began to return to their places of worship and slowly rebuild sacred places that were damaged or destroyed during the communist period.

The sun beams through the beautiful stained glass windows in the Muslim Community of Albania’s headquarters in Tirana. The window from the fourth floor provides a bird’s eye view of Tirana’s newest mosque currently under construction across the road. “It will be able to hold 5,000 people,” explains Agron Hoxha, the Community’s spokesperson. “It will be the biggest mosque in the Balkans and it should be finished next year.”

The size of the building, which is being funded by the Turkish government, is breathtaking. When construction is finished it will provide a central mosque for practising Muslims in Tirana, who are often forced to pray on the pavement when attending their smaller city mosques for Friday prayers. The new mosque is being built on George W. Bush Street. It was named thus following a visit by the former US President in 2007, demonstrating Albania’s staunchly pro-American sentiments thanks to America’s strong support for NATO’s intervention during the Kosovo War in 1999, a country where more than 80 per cent of the population are ethnic Albanian.

Stopping extremism

Despite this, Albania has not been immune to the spread of Islamic extremism. In November 2016, authorities in Kosovo arrested 19 people suspected of planning a terrorist attack during a FIFA World Cup qualifying match between Albania and Israel. Police investigating the incident found explosives and evidence that the plot was being coordinated by two Kosovo-Albanians who are known members of the so-called Islamic State.

According to government statistics, in 2015 114 Albanian citizens were known to be fighting with the so-called Islamic State (IS or ISIS) in Syria and Iraq. Research into the reasons why has shown that economics is one of the main motivating factors. Albania remains one of the poorest countries in Europe with a high unemployment rate, particularly amongst the youth – some 28 per cent of young people aged 15-29 years are unemployed.

A 2015 study on religious radicalism and violent extremism in Albania notes: “Suburban and rural areas show the most concerning indicators on social economic drivers where groups most vulnerable to radicalisation include poor people and families, jobless youth or young people, who believing that they are discriminated because of their faith.”

Hoxha says that the Muslim Community of Albania has joined forces with the US Embassy in Tirana to implement projects to counter radicalism and he thinks Albania has done a “good job” in reducing the threat of extremism. “Albania has the least problem with extremists in Europe. The number of Albanian’s joining ISIS from Albania is very low considering the population of Muslims in the country,” he says.

Recent figures show that the number of Albanians joining IS has fallen to zero. Whether this drop is due to the deteriorating situation of IS’s position in the Middle East or the efforts of the Albanian government and religious communities is open for debate, but it is clear that religious leaders can play an important role in combating division.

Ensuring future harmony

In the Inter-Religious Collaboration Centre in the central city of Elbasan, Sokol Lulguragj, a representative of the Catholic church, and a local Catholic priest, Father Emilio Valente, proudly display the dozen photographs of different religious leaders attending national and international events.

Lulguragj stresses that his organisation does not represent “a synchronisation of the different faiths”. Instead they “want to promote a feeling of togetherness with diversity, a place where individual religious identities are celebrated unimpeded.” Every year on New Year’s Day, for example, the Centre organises a multi-faith Peace March through the streets of Elbasan in a public display of unity.

Although visible inter-faith cooperation is important for continued harmony in the country, Albania faces other challenges that may pose a threat to the status quo. One of the principle issues is the restitution of religious properties that were seized by Hoxha’s communist government.

According to Bishop Merdani of the Albanian Orthodox Church, “only 10 per cent of our requests for property have been processed by the government. What we are particularly concerned with is the restoration of our churches. Some are historic monuments and are important to the Orthodox religion.”

This is a sentiment echoed by each of the religious communities who, according to Shaheed of the UN, “believe that the delays are not a result of logistical or even bureaucratic complexities, but a lack of political will on the part of the state over the years.”

These delays in restoring properties has led to frustration amongst Albania’s religious communities which sometimes results in feuds with those currently dwelling in the properties in question.

Hoxha of the Muslim Community believes that the way to ensure that dangerous ideology and division between religions does not take hold in Albania is to keep promoting inter-faith projects and dialogue at a grassroots level.

“I have three children. We are Muslim. For Christmas I took my children to the church, just to see what it was like, just as we go to the mosque for Bajram [celebrated during Ramadan, the ‘Festival of the Breaking of the Fast’]. I wanted them to see that a church is not a strange or frightening place just because we are not Christians…I hope they will be good Muslims, but being a good Muslim means respecting the others. I believe you have little respect for something you don’t know, you have to understand a group in order to respect. People, by nature, create enemies of those they do not know.”