Albania’s religious harmony endures in the face of new challenges

Albania’s religious harmony endures in the face of new challenges

Albania’s model of religious tolerance has been instrumental in mitigating any risk of social unrest, enduring through decades of deep social, political and economic transformation. Last week, the leaders of each of Albania’s religious communities reaffirmed their commitment to continued interfaith dialogue. But during a perceived global shift towards religious extremism and political partisanship, this model faces new challenges.

Albania’s interfaith harmony

Surrounded by countries divided across ethnic and religious lines, Albania, a small country in southeastern Europe, has enjoyed good relations between its main religious communities. These are the Albanian Muslim Community (KMSH), the Orthodox Church, the Bektashi Community, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Brotherhood.

On 3 May 2018, an interfaith conference was held in Tirana, the capital of Albania, attended by the leaders of those religious communities. The conference sought to emphasize common values, while promoting ‘mutual respect, cooperation and active dialogue’. Religious leaders in Albania believe that combined efforts to maintain and promote religious harmony will provide an important cultural anchor for Albania’s continued modernization.

Albania’s religious harmony has received international praise. In 2014, the recently elected Pope Francis chose Albania as his first European country to visit. During that visit he launched an attack on religious extremism, underlining Albania’s religious tolerance as a national treasure and a political exemplar.

Historical political factors have shaped the contemporary religious landscape

Albania’s model of religious harmony is successful due to the fact that in the last century, religion in Albania has not played a principle role in politics or society.

The country was under Roman and Ottoman occupation for centuries, effectively turning it into a religiously diverse but ethnically homogeneous nation. Upon declaration of independence in 1912, there was no state religion, nor have there ever been attempts to establish one. In fact, the ruling elite have always been strongly anti-religious. After Enver Hoxha assumed power in 1944, his communist regime launched a major assault on religion. It banned the following of religion in the constitution, imprisoned and executed religious leaders and destroyed or repurposed places of worship.

Although communism eventually collapsed, in 1992, the state of Albania’s religious institutions was abominable, with religion then a marginal aspect of daily life. Even today, it is not so powerful as to play a divisive role in Albanian culture and society.

A recent report published by the Institute for Democracy and Mediation noted the ‘lax attitude’ that Albanians have towards religion has facilitated tolerance and respect. Religion, citizens believe, should remain within the private sphere. According to a 2011 study, only 5% of Albanians attend religious ceremonies on a regular basis, while 50% attend them on special occasions. Interreligious marriages are widely accepted while Christians and Muslims frequently partake in each other’s religious celebrations. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for Muslim children to attend Christian schools, or vice versa.

Religious moderation promotes political stability and security, but challenges remain

Re-building the post-Communist state has demanded cooperation between all communities, creating a foundation of interreligious cooperation. Ever since, Albania has experienced a level of cultural cohesion that has contributed to the stability, security and overall prosperity of the country. As the country tries to modernize and consolidate its democracy, this continued dialogue is essential to creating a sense of shared responsibility for Albania’s future.

Acceptance of religious diversity, as acknowledged by religious communities and their respective leaders, can also serve as an important counternarrative against radicalization. Responding to the departure of over 100 Albanians to join either al-Nusra or the Islamic State in Syria, the Albanian Muslim Community (KMSH) has taken measures to counter threats of Islamic extremism. In 2015, KMSH launched a pilot program to promote democratic values and active citizenship among Muslim youth. In a 2015 interview KMSH head Skënder Bruçaj declared:

‘We choose to be Muslims, Catholics or Orthodox, while being Albanians is something that is determined by God.’

Contrary to some of its counterparts in other regions of the world, the organization appears to promote moderate Islamic teachings in its mosques through KMSH-controlled imam schools. But according to a global terrorism report by The Jamestown Foundation, there remains a lack of clarity on the vetting of the other imams. The active mosques that are outside of KMSH administration are a particular problem. Those mosques are in remote and impoverished areas of the country which are more prone to radicalization.

Uncontrolled mosques have created issues for KMSH. In 2015 a report claimed that 200 out of 727 mosques were not KMSH-controlled. In these mosques, deemed illegal by the Albanian government, it is believed a stricter more sectarian articulation of Salafism is preached – likely imported from abroad. The EU’s decision to add the Western Balkans to its enlargement agenda is reflective of the uneasiness that this foreign influence has created in Brussels. The Polish Foreign Minister noted during his recent visit to Tirana that the EU deems it better to enlarge now before Salafism’s influence in the region grows further.

Challenges to interfaith harmony

There have been several instances over the last ten or so years that have posed a serious challenge to Albania’s illustrious interfaith harmony. Religious property and cultural objects, whether Muslim or Christian, have caused unrest among followers and the clergy.

In 2006, a Mother Teresa statue was erected in Shkoder, generating opposition from Albanian Muslims – who believed it represented ‘an underground effort to treat Shkoder as a Catholic town’. Last year the decision to cover a statue of Skanderbeg, the country’s national hero, during Ramadan prayers drew sharp criticism from the country’s intellectual elite. There has also been heated debate on the celebration of religious holidays in disputed places of worship.

Although no incident has yet resulted in violence, partially due to consultation by religious leaders, it is important to note how fragile religious harmony is. In the words of Albanian literary figure Ismail Kadare,

‘religious tolerance is a remarkable flower…which can die if not given the proper attention’.

For this reason, Albania’s religious leaders will continue to make serious efforts to nurture and cultivate interfaith dialogue.

Overall, Albania’s religious leadership has been a strong factor in mitigating the risk of interreligious conflict. It provides a striking example by promoting mutual respect ‘to live and let live’. So long as the leadership continues to promote progressive policies, religious tolerance is likely to endure. Nevertheless, in these divisive political times this model will require constant care – something Albania’s religious leaders not only acknowledge but have effectively transformed into a modus vivendi.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Leonie Vrugtman

Leonie Vrugtman is an independent researcher in political violence and extremism, with a focus on women in Islamic State. Her research covers home-grown radicalization and security issues in the West (mainly UK/NL/Western Balkans), as well as global and local issues that allow Islamic Extremism to rise in the Middle East. She previously worked at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Dickson Poon School of Law. Leonie holds and MA in International Relations at King’s College London, and a BSc and a BA in Journalism and Communications from the Netherlands.