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How Albania's Religious Mix Offers an Example for the Rest of the World

Posted: 11/28/2012 2:47 pm

A century ago, on Nov. 28, 1912, the people of Albania proclaimed their freedom from the Ottoman Empire. The declaration of Albanian independence, and adoption of the ancient Albanian banner, with a black double-headed eagle on a red field, were announced in the eastern Adriatic port of Vlora.

The document of separation from Turkish domination was signed, and the flag raised, under the leadership of an Ottoman diplomat of Albanian ethnicity, Ismail Qemali (1844-1919), a member of the Bektashi order of spiritual Sufi Muslims. He was supported by a prominent Albanian fighter from Kosovo and Sunni Muslim, Isa Boletini (1864-1916), a visionary Catholic intellectual, Luigj Gurakuqi (1879-1925), and 80 other patriots.

Albania and Albanians everywhere have celebrated the centennial of their self-determination in recent weeks. The Albanian flag appears ubiquitously and in gigantic form in the capital, Tirana, along with shops and kiosks selling every variety of collectibles in the red-and-black national colors, from cowboy hats to ballpoint pens.

Portraits of Ismail Qemali are seen most frequently, as he is considered the father of the country's sovereignty.

While most of the signatories of the Albanian Declaration of Independence were Sunni Muslims, the activism of the Bektashi Sufis and Catholics in the national cause was noteworthy. Representatives of Albanian Orthodox Christian believers were also involved in the 1912 Vlora events.

The Vlora declaration's list of signatories thus reflected the variety of religious identities present in the historic Albanian-majority lands, including Albania proper, Kosovo, western Macedonia, northern and eastern Montenegro, south Serbia and northern Greece. Albanians have traditionally counted about 35 percent Sunnis, 35 percent Bektashis, 20 percent Albanian Orthodox and 10 percent Catholics.

An Albanian Jewish community of some 700 people emigrated mostly to Israel after the fall of communist rule in 1991, but the Jewish presence has revived, and a new synagogue has been established in Tirana. Albanians evince substantial and justified pride in having saved several thousand Jews, both local residents and Jews who fled other countries in Europe, from extermination during World War II, protecting them after Albania was occupied by the Germans in 1943.

Yad Vashem, the aptly titled Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Israel, recognizes 69 Albanians as "Righteous Among Nations." Documentary research and interviews in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia by me and others, nevertheless, suggests that the number of rescuers of Jews included many more, drawn from Sunni, Bektashi, Catholic and Orthodox clergy and families. The small Albanian nation could not prevent the Holocaust elsewhere in Europe, but they did so on their own territory.

Ismail Qemali, late in the 19th century, had anticipated this noble action of the Albanians. As an Ottoman official in Romania, then formally a Turkish possession, he acted to shield the Jews there against gross discrimination, establishing a refuge for persecuted Jews in the town of Braila. He wrote of "the respect all [Muslims] owe to the race from which sprang the truth of all religions and all the intelligence possessed by humanity through revelation, which urged us to try to remedy the misfortunes of the [Romanian] Jewish population."

Today the Albanian religious panorama has expanded to include Baha'is, Evangelical Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons, among others.

Albanian interfaith harmony represents a unique example for the rest of the world. Speaking a language of Indo-European origin but directly related to no other, Albanians were compelled always to put their national identity ahead of religious affiliation. Even as functionaries of the Ottoman state, in which Albanians became grand viziers of the Sultans, they never forgot their origins.

The 100th anniversary of Albanian independence, on Nov. 28, was preceded on Nov. 24 by an Ashura commemoration, at the Bektashi Sufi world headquarters in Tirana. Ashura memorializes the murder of Imam Hussein, grandson of Prophet Muhammad, at Kerbala in 680 C.E. Bektashi Sufis, with 2 million followers in Albanian communities, are the only indigenous Shiite Muslims in Europe (except for some Turkish Shiites in the small part of Turkey adjoining Bulgaria and Greece, and elsewhere among Turkish minorities in the Balkans). The Albanian Bektashis have long equated the fate of their nation with that of the virtuous victim, Imam Hussein. They enjoy legal recognition as a distinct entity from Sunni Muslims in Albania and Kosovo.

Ashura is central, understandably, to Bektashi devotions, and like the Albanian Declaration of Independence, the Ashura ceremony this year, in which I participated, revealed the nature of Albanian interreligious unity.

The "head grandfather" of the Bektashis, Baba Edmond Brahimaj, read from a text naming the Bektashi luminaries who preceded him, punctuated with repetition of the formula, "Ya Hussein!" (O Hussein!), recited on Ashura by millions of Shiites around the world. Ashura in Tirana was attended by a Sunni imam, a Catholic priest, an Albanian Orthodox cleric and a Protestant minister, as well as government representatives and diplomats from Turkey, Egypt, Kuwait, Iran, Poland, the Czech Republic and Brazil.

It has been said often that small nations may produce great ideas. Albania and Kosovo suffer economically, and Albanians in neighboring countries are objects of discrimination, but they maintain their dignity. For their example of cooperation between believers in different faiths, and people of no religious affiliation, they deserve the congratulations of the world in the 100th year of their independence.

 
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