The Lecture of President Moisiu at the Oxford Forum "The Inter-religious tolerance in the tradition of the Albanian people."
November 9, 2005
London, Great Britain
From the outset I would like to express the distinctive pleasure for the opportunity to lecture today in such a distinguished auditorium.
Albania is a country that came out late from the self-isolation. After half a century of being separated from the world, after the political transformations that happened at the global scale, the Albanians decided to alienate from their past. As it was expected, a general feeling of impatience to touch “the forbidden world” – the West – took hold of especially the young generation. In the beginning of the nineties, Albania went through a series of massive exoduses, mainly towards Italy and Greece also.
A lot of time had gone by and Albania and the West had become stranger to one another. This was their first contact at the beginning of a new era – the open society era.
An ancient history of the Albanian people, connected to the end of Medieval and the beginning of the ottoman rule was being repeated. Back then too, dense waves of emigrants with heavy and painful hearts began their journey towards the West. Albanian emigrants inhabited entire villages in the south of Italy. The local nobility received the displaced Albanians in a great manner. Italy became “Felix Italia” to these newcomers.
There is a great difference between the first Albanian emigration and their second one – the exodus that happened fifteen years ago. In the fifteenth century the richest Albanian families emigrated towards the West, the patronymic families – the ones that took with them the crests, emblems, stamps, chronicles, religious manuscripts, church bells. In the 1990-s the first to emigrate were the most inpatient ones, the most desperate. In the fifteenth century the Albanians took to the West an excellent image: they were the sons of “the Champion of Christianity” George (Gjergj) Kastrioti Scanderbeg who had saved the Western civilization form the ottoman threat and now the West was honoured and grateful to make room for those hopeless emigrants who had knocked on its doors. In the 1990s a majority of those that emigrated transmitted in the West the image of a violent, rough and threatening Albania. Very soon a question aroused in the political and academic circles of the West: Is there another Albania, one with a European face, an Albania where the civilization’s values had survived?
It was exactly this question, this situation, this need to change the damaged image of the country, to also prove wrong a few tendentiousness trends of the Western press that pushed the Albanian scholars and their colleagues in Europe to search for the illuminated values of the Albanian identity as an identity of the same class with those of the Western countries, regardless that misfortune had brought it about to have a bad reputation.
There was among these values a quality – the inter-religious tolerance – which immediately attracted the well wishing attention of all those scholars and politicians, Albanian and foreign, who believed in and were searching to find another image in the Albanian people, another face worthy to be united in a not so distance future with the ancient continent.
This model makes up a precious asset to us, Albanians, and is also a positive reality with a great deal of value in the region where we live and beyond it borders. Our societies are inevitably moving towards globalization and integration by attempting the founding of a big family in which there is room also for all the assets and values of the nations and peoples. The small countries are not expected to compete in the global world with their economies and material assets. However they can contribute in enriching the global society with their most precious identity and values by creating a rich mosaic of values and cultures that recognize, respect and develop one another. The integration through values and the co-existence of the national identity with the European one make our Euro-Atlantic aspiration more reachable and useful.
The “Albania Case” as an exemplary case of the religions’ coexistence throughout the long way of history began to be treated very soon as the “Albania Phenomenon.” This ethno-distinguished character of the Albanians was evidenced more by the situation that was created through the factorization of the international terrorism as a general threat, which at the mean time is also an expression of intolerance at the higher level, gave a special importance to this ethno-distinguishable characteristic of the Albanians. The “Albania Case” or the “Albania Phenomenon” became important not only as a cultural and historical issue, but above all as a useful experience for the humanity, as an evoking and encouraging opportunity in international circles.
The unwinding brought by the overstepping of the traditional opposition between the two opposing political systems, the installing of the democratic governments and the proclamation of the Rule of Law as the ideal for the contemporary politics were accompanied by blooming of new oppositions. While the scholars were discussing whether the future would come with clashes or dialogue among civilizations, the intolerance brought about the September 11th event, which forced humanity to reflect deeply over its past and future.
Exactly at this time there were two international conferences held in Tirana, one of whom had a scholarly topic and the other a clear political aim, under the direct auspices of the institution of the head of state. The academic and university institutions held a series of other activities on the same array of issues.
But what does the inter-religious tolerance mean among the Albanians? Is this the most correct term, or may be another term must be used?
In fact, the scientists, the scholars of the political and religious sociology, foreign or domestic, have used terms that contain changes in the form of nuances. The historians of religion and theologians talk about “inter-religious ecumenism,” while the medieval connoisseurs and ethnologists use the term “”inter-religious convergence.” The secular historians and sociologists are more in favour of the terms “religious tolerance, co-existence or harmony.”
In this lecture we will use the term “inter-religious tolerance” judging that either the exaggeration or the under-evaluation will bring the distortion of the truth and the historical value of the characteristic may be missing.
The Albanians are a relatively small people. They have not had many opportunities to promote the values of their historic and cultural identity because they have been divided in parts in the Balkans countries, with no more than half of them living within the borders of the Albanian state or “the London Albania” as it is called by a part of the Balkan press.
In Albania it is not a tradition to officially register on religious bases. The religious pertinence does not take part in the generalities of the population’s registration. The reports among the religious communities that are mentioned in the studies done mainly by foreigners refer to the hypothetical numbers concluded by being based on the only state demographic registration that contained also the “religion” indicator, which was conducted in 1929-30.
The religious status of the Albanian people can be judged through two viewpoints: 1.In the vertical-diachronic point of view all the Albanians are Christian; 2.In the horizontal-synchronic point of view, the Albanians is a people in which co-exist the two Abrahamic religions: Christianity and Islam. Each one of these two Abrahamic religions co-exists through their respective branches. To simplify it: the Albanian population practises two Christian communities: the Western Roman Christianity and the Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The same way, this population has two Muslim communities: the Islamic community and the Bektashian one that represent the same the reforming and liberal Protestantism within Islamism.
As in any other country in the world, there are atheists in Albania and also believers who do not practise rites and are not practising in any praying house and there are mixed families with many beliefs in them. During the first half of the twentieth century a Jewish community existed in Albania which was officially recognized by the state. Another part of the Albanians, although monotheistic in the core, appear as pantheists in the way they believe, with signs of paganism. Not only for this part, but also for the Albanians in general it is entirely normal to identify God with a mountain so the majority of the mountains in Albania can have holidays and sacrifice days throughout the year. The Albanian state itself is laic and according to the constitution of the country, the Albanian state does not have an official religion – this does not exclude the responsibility of the state to enable the conditions for the revival and development of the religion and ecclesiastical institutions.
The most realistic view on the religious status in Albania is the vertical one. A level of pagan faith exists in every Albanian. In every Albanian – even in those Albanians who converted to Islamism at the end of Medieval – do exist fifteen centuries of Christianity because the Christianity in the Albanian space has been apostolic and it has been directly spread by the Christian missionaries ever since the first century. According to the Apostles’ Gospels including the King James Version of the Bible, the first preacher of Christianity in the Illyric proto-Albanian world was Saint Paul while in Dardania – in the present Kosova – the preacher was Saint Mathew. That part of the Albanians which did not convert into Islam has in its tradition not simply fifteen centuries of Christianity, but two thousand years of Christianity. The latest level of belief among the Albanians is Islam. This vertical view contains and explains the core of the religious tolerance among the Albanians. In any Albanian, as in any palimpsest can be discovered and found all the historic levels of the spreading of beliefs. In this aspect, placed one by one, level by level, the various forms of belief have not been seen as exclusive forms and further less as fanatical ones.
The religious tolerance among the Albanians is not a quality developed in modern times and neither formed through education and schooling. It is a tradition that originates from the depth of the centuries.
One of the most common mistakes that are usually made while treating this issue is that this tolerance was born among the Albanians after the arrival of the Ottoman political and religious factor, meaning after the fifteenth century. This goes contrary to the historical facts. The religious tolerance has existed among the Albanians before the appearance of this factor. It must be known that Albania was the area where the two greatest empires of the Medieval met and were divided by one another: the Roman and the Byzantium Empires. The same way, Albania was the point where the authority of the two churches met and separated: the Roman and Byzantine Churches. The two Empires and the two Churches, although strong rivals and adversaries of one another, never became a cause for conflict among the Albanians. “The Theodosius Line” separated in two parts the Albanian space ever since the end of palaeo-Christianity: one part under the Roman political and religious rule and the other part under the Byzantium political and religious rule. But this separation was never transformed into a borderline between the Albanians themselves. “The Theodosius Line” remained precise only in the ancient maps. During the long process of history it has always been on the move: sometimes more in the East in favour of Rome and other times more in the West in favour of Constantinople. The Albanians themselves did not become a factor in these movements. They freely alternated the ritual according to the alternation of the political and religious rule. It was a completely normal thing for a generation of Albanians in the Medieval to grow up as schismatic Christian and then for next generation to grow up according to the roman ritual and vice-versa, because in their conscience this was not a divine issue, but simply a case of power competition.
A strong spirit of ecumenism existed in the tradition of the Albanian church. It is a normal thing to find books of the Christian moral translated by the very clerics for the Christian Orthodox from Western models and vice-versa in the libraries with Christian manuscripts of the Albanian churches of the Medieval. In the Christian manuscripts preserved in the Albanian praying houses one can find the Christian Orthodox clerics painted with the typical clothes of a Catholic cleric and vice-versa. Not only this, but exactly at the time when Latin, Hellenic and Staroslavic language has achieved the highest level of rivalry and excluding one another as the liturgical language, in the Albanian churches and monasteries such as the Monastery of Saint John Vladimir one can find the three languages used alongside each-others without the slightest sign of fanaticism or emulation, without a sign of lack of tolerance.
It can be concluded that until the appearance of the Ottoman political, military and religious factor, it was important to the Albanian man to be a devout Christian. Whether he would be Catholic or schismatic this was simply a question of the authority of terrestrial institutions, be them state or religious ones. Some of greatest patronymic Albanian families such as the Balshaj and Topiaj families for example, quite some times changed their religious orientation: in favour of the Roman church, in favour schism, then again pro Roman Church and again pro schism according to the move of the official authority and rule. The very same character of George Castriota Scanderbeg himself – the national hero of the Albanians – expresses in itself the full core of the convergence, ecumenism, tolerance and even the religious pragmatism of his people. He was born in a Christian family that practiced Slavic Orthodox rites; then was educated in the Sultan’s court as a Mohammedan and became a Janissary – which means that he was converted into a fanatical Islam believer – then returned to his homeland and converted into the faith of his forefathers, married the daughter of an Orthodox of Byzantium rites nobleman and wrote in his will that he wanted to be buried in a Roman Cathedral Church in Lissus. Through all this it can be explained also the fact that the emigrant Albanians that were established in Italy after the Ottoman conquest immediately became units: they accepted the Roman administrative dependency by preserving the Byzantium ritual. Truth be told, they were not the only ones. There do exist tens of documents, including letters addressed to the Popes, through which the Albanians of the coastline asked the same thing: administrative dependency from the Vatican and the Byzantium ritual – because only this assured them protection from the Ottoman factor.
The conversion of a part of the Albanians into Islam began by the end of Medieval. There have been abuses with this new development, especially in politics. The Albanians often are called a Muslim people or with a Muslim majority. This is a very superficial reading of the Albanian reality. First of all, because Islamism in Albania is neither a resource religion, nor a religion spread at the time of origin. It is neither a residential belief, but it is an imported and inherited phenomenon in the language and liturgy of the factor that brought it. The Islamism in Albania is an Islam with a European face. As a rule it is a shallow Islamism. If you dig a little in every Albanian you can discover his Christian core. The majority of the Albanian families remember in which generation the conversion occurred. The majority of the Albanian families that was Islamized preserve to this day Christian surnames (they have changed only the names). A good part of them have preserved until lately the faith of the forefathers in the form of crypto-Christianity, or more precisely Muslims in appearance and Christian in content. The history of religion in Albania depicts entire areas where the population practiced in parallel the two faiths. The same way, history describes entire areas where the same praying house served on Friday to preach the Islamic liturgy and on Sunday the Christian liturgy. The Albanian Muslim believer truly swears in the name of Koran, but at the mean time celebrates Saint Mary of August, Saint George of May, Saint Nicholas of Autumn and Christmas. This means that inside the Albanian, regardless of how he portrays himself at the present, there is a homogenizing factor and this homogenizing factor is exactly the fifteen centuries of Christianity period that each of the Albanians has in the tradition of his forefathers.
The national feeling rests above the religious distinction in the identity of the Albanians. The Albanian is first of all the member of an ethnic community and then of a religious community. One of the ideologues of the Albanians’ National Renaissance has stated laconically: “The religion of the Albanians is Albanism.” Although stated in a philosophic and political notion, this saying brings in mind the sole experience in the world when the religion of a nation is its nationality: the Jews whose religion and nationality is the Hebraism. The case of the Albanians is slightly different: the Albanians have given the priority to nationality while choosing between nationality and religion hence the nationality (Albanism) is their true religion.
The tolerance among the Albanians is not only religious, but also linguistic and in many cases, ethnic too. During the years of the First World War there were in Albania endless foreign armies almost as in the entire Balkans: Austrian, French, and Italian, Greek, Serbian, Montenegrin, Bulgarian and Turkish armies. When the war ended and these armies did not have anything to eat, neither medicines to treat the wounds, nor means to return to their homelands, the Albanian people sheltered them in their families although it knew very well that many of them had committed crimes and atrocities on the Albanians themselves. During the period after September 8, 1943 when Italy and Mussolini capitulated there were in Albania more than twenty thousand militia and officers that had set foot on Albania as occupying army. Within two weeks, these forces were disarmed and were treated as a deserting army, predestined to be annihilated by the Nazi army. The Albanian people saved this army from the horrible end that was expecting it, although they had killed and burned, had ravaged and robbed. The Italian soldiers were dressed with the traditional Albanian costumes and were sheltered in the families of the Albanians.
The treatment of the Jews by the Albanians during the Second World War was unprecedented. The Albanian governments collaborated with the Fascist and Nazi authorities as everywhere in the world at that time, they collaborated as vassal governments, but they never handed over to the foreign armies the lists of Jews. Albania is the only country in the world where, although it had a double occupation, no Jew was handed over, no Jew ended up in concentration camps and not even one Jew was ever victimized. This goes not only for the Jews of Albania proper, its citizens, but for about three thousand Jews that came over from other Balkan states, escaping the threat of being annihilated where they were. These three thousand Jews, whose majority had entered illegally in Albania found immediate and unconditioned protection from the Albanian authorities and people.
The tolerance consists in an ethno-typical character of the Albanians. It is not that other peoples have no tolerance. Perhaps this quality is connected also to the geo-political position of the Albanian state. While the West has viewed Balkans and it door – Albania – as an exotic East, on the contrary, the East has viewed it as a rich West. At the crossroad of the two worlds, the Albanians have taken and given with both of them by also preserving its identifying core, by serving as a bridge where influences passed and by also absorbing from them. This way was formed among the Albanians the historical conviction that the distinction, be it religious, regional, racist, genetic, national, cultural, etc., is not a threat, but an asset. Such a conviction has formed the inter-religious tolerance and furthers more among the Albanians and such a conviction has made its civilization an open one.
The co-existence of three religions is an unusual tendency in a region where a religion is often connected to nationalism and in the name of belief there has been caused fratricide wars. Throughout the process of founding and later on of the disintegration of Yugoslavia the Albanians were not the aggressors, but the victims of the others. Today we are the sole country in Europe and elsewhere which confines on the greatest part of the foreign borders with Albanian population. We used our presence and fortitude to found a civil co-existence among ethnicities, peoples and religions and the cases of Kosova, Macedonia and Montenegro are vivid examples of this policy.
In contrast with this positive experience, the conflicts based on religion or entwined with religious elements, which can be found also in countries with developed democracies, have dominated the political developments of the last decade in our region. Ten years ago, in the neighbouring Bosnia happened one of the gravest cases of ethnic conflicts in the history of Europe. Before the nineties the religious communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina co-existed in peace and understanding with one another. During the disintegration process of former Yugoslavia, the very same faiths and beliefs found themselves in the extreme positions of armed adversaries. The society was divided based on religious belief and also on ethnic origin among the Bosnian Muslims, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats. The extraordinary balance sheet of human, moral and material consequences it is already known worldwide. This way the use of religion and religious pertinence for political gains and ethnic arrogance brought the tragic disintegration of the Bosnian model where the religious tolerance did not lack. The case of Bosnia demonstrated in a vivid way in our region how dangerous it can become when religion is used as a cover to achieve nationalistic political objectives.
The same scenario was prepared to happen in Kosova too. The propaganda of Milośević tried to present the peaceful Albanian resistance as a war of the Albanian Muslims against the Serb Christianity. The entire world witnessed the expulsion of a million of innocent citizens whose only guilt was opposing the criminal regime of Milośević and the aspiration to live free. All the Albanian citizens and religious beliefs in Kosova, Catholics and Muslims became victims of the Serbian terror by offering another example that the Serbian violence was not directed against a religious belief, but against an entire people of a different nationality. Through the help of NATO and the democratic countries, especially through the active role of the United States of America and United Kingdom the humanitarian catastrophe, the genocide over an innocent people and the strategy of the further ethnic cleansing in the Balkans were prevented in 1999. The war of Kosova put an end to the Balkan wars of 1990s which took the lives of more than one million innocent citizens. The Albanians and the Serbs in Kosova together with the other ethnicities are jointly working for six years towards building a democratic, multi-ethnic and European society. There have been obstacles, difficulties and problems, some of whom were incited also by states that interested to have a lack of stability and co-existence in Kosova, but time is proving that the interest on the final status and European future of Kosova has to do with every citizen of Kosova, regardless of the religious belief and nationality. In Prishtina, lately, the politicians and citizens of all religions participated in the beginning of the construction of the Great Catholic Cathedral. They undertook this act in sign of appreciation for their ancient Christian history and also in effort to demonstrate their full willingness for a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Kosova.
The Albanian model of religious harmony based on democratic values and Rule of Law takes upon a great value in the global debate over the need of understanding and co-existence of cultures and civilizations. In the contrary to the pessimistic scenarios and forecasts, the values of freedom and democracy are successfully facing the threats by becoming more and more dominating in approaching and strengthening the ties among cultures, peoples, religions and civilizations. Inspired by these universal values, the Western community liberated Kosova which had a majority of citizens belonging to the Muslim faith and we, Albanians also joined without hesitation the war of the coalition led by the United States against international terrorism. Our peacekeeping forces are dislocated in Iraq and Afghanistan trying to strengthen the young democratic societies of these countries. Regardless of the hardships of rebuilding, with the fall of the regimes of Sadam Hussein and Taliban, a new perspective has opened for the inhabitants of these countries and terrorism has suffered a major blow and the human world is safer.
In my point of view, terrorism is older than all the present religious beliefs, it has no faith, it has neither homeland and nor a system of values where it can be based. Being such it would be wrong and unjust to identify terrorism with a people or religious belief. All must be united in the fight against terrorism, regardless of the religious belief and ethnic pertinence. Terrorism presents in modern societies the greatest threat for the democratic values and freedoms. Terrorism presents the very same threat in other societies too, where the borderline between freedom and censorship is hard to be defined. Hence it remains a great evil that must be fought by all, together and without hesitation.
The peaceful religious pluralism has served as a unifying element among various peoples, families and groups in society. The religious communities remain faithful to their initial inspiration to the benefit of goodness and peace and also with a great dedication play an active role in overcoming social problems, in breading and educating the youngsters, in strengthening the role of family, culture and European national identity. Through their distinctive contribution Albania represents also one of the unique cases of a country with different religious beliefs, where all the political factors of the society, including here the religious communities too, are strong supporters of the country’s integration in the European Union and NATO. The Euro-Atlantic spirit knows no opposition and no objectors which demonstrate that our religious and social identity is and still remains a deeply European one.
We are conscious that values are not eternal, that they must be preserved and cultivated in the mentality of the citizens together with the democratic culture and continuous improvement of the legal framework. AT the same time, we strive to transform the culture of dialogue among different religious beliefs and communities into a bridge of union and communication, of exchange and stronger connection among the peoples and countries; to work so the citizen, his integrity and the preservation of his human rights can be the main leightmotif of the Rule of Law that we are building. Through the strengthening of the democratic values and Euro-Atlantic spirit it would be easier to isolate the extremists, to successfully face the challenges of the time and to prevent the possible threats in the relations among peoples in society or in the relations with other countries.