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Kosovo Widens Its International Interfaith Scope

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The Muslim-majority Kosovo Republic has taken a leading initiative in promoting international interfaith dialogue, in a Balkan setting. The Kosovo government has committed notably to public reconciliation efforts bringing official Albanian Muslim clerical authorities together with representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

In the long period of civil confrontation in Kosovo, which entered an acute phase in 1987 and culminated in NATO military intervention in 1999, Serbian Orthodox religious leaders were more prominent as political actors than Albanian Muslim and Catholic faith representatives. Supporters of Serbian demagogue Slobodan Miloševiċ portrayed the struggle in Kosovo as a Serbian response to Islamist jihadism.

That gambit by Miloševiċ and his minions echoed their earlier attempt, in the Bosnian war of 1992-95, to depict the Bosnian Muslims as Islamist fundamentalists. Yet the overwhelming majority of Bosnian Muslims fought, in the company of Catholic Croats, Serbian believers in a single Bosnia, Jews, and people of no religion, for the right to live in peace with their neighbors, rather than for Islamic supremacy.

The Kosovo war was inter-ethnic, pitting Albanians against Serbs, and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which led the Kosovar Albanian campaign against Serbian rule, was a national, not a religious, body. When it declared independence in 2008, Kosovo adopted a constitution defining the country as secular. This commitment reflected the tradition of Albanian patriotism. In the 19th century "Rilindja" or "Rebirth" of Albanian identity, a prominent figure, Pashko Vasa (1826-92), a Catholic who became Ottoman governor of Lebanon, wrote, "The faith of the Albanian is Albanianism."

Albanians have displayed an enduring pride in the lack of conflict between their Muslim majority and their Christian minorities - Albanian Orthodox, Catholic, and, though seldom-mentioned, Protestant. They are also honored justifiably for their action in protecting more than 3,000 Jews during the Holocaust, after Albania was occupied by the Germans. Albania was the only German-controlled country in Europe that ended the war with more Jews resident on its soil than were present in 1939.

The appreciation of Albanians for national solidarity in opposition to internal religious discord is understandable when one considers that Albanians are surrounded by speakers of other languages - Slavic and Greek - and that their country has been the object of conquest by Turks and Italians. In such an environment, national identity has overridden spiritual rivalries.

The devotion of Albanians to interfaith unity was expressed at the First International Interfaith Conference held in Peja in western Kosovo, on May 24-26, 2013, with "Faith and Reconciliation" as its theme. The Second International Interfaith Conference was organized over the weekend of May 23-25, 2014, in the southern Kosovo city of Prizren. I was privileged to participate as a panelist at both.

These conferences have been sponsored by InterfaithKosovo, a body established by the Kosovo Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with input from the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and the Community of Sant' Egidio - a Catholic institution for interfaith outreach - and financial support from the British Council, the Norwegian Embassy, the United States Embassy, and the European Union.

The 2014 InterfaithKosovo seminar was held under the rubric of "Religion and Politics: Enhancing Interfaith Dialogue as a Means of Democratic Development." The two annual conferences have been central to annual observances of a "Week of Tolerance and Reconciliation."

The second InterfaithKosovo event differed from its predecessor in 2013. Prizren, with a large Turkish-speaking community, is a more diverse city than Peja. Additionally, Prizren shelters the Apostolic Administration of the Roman Catholic Church for Kosovo, the small Jewish community of Kosovo, and numerous spiritual Sufi shrines. These stand alongside the reconstructed Serbian Orthodox Monastery of Saints Cyril and Methodius and several other Serbian religious monuments.

Overlooking the Lumbardha River that runs through the city, the 17th century Sinan Pasha Mosque is said to be the largest Muslim religious installation in the Balkans. When the Islamic call to prayer is sounded in Prizren, it is heard from many minarets in the city, creating a chorus of distinctive voices, united in the appeal to Muslim believers.

The Second International Interfaith Conference organized this year in Kosovo was more diverse in its participants. Several visitors came from Israel, although the Jewish state has not recognized Kosovo. The female president of Kosovo, Atifete Jahjaga, addressed the welcoming session of the 2014 symposium, on the evening of March 23, followed by chief Islamic cleric Naim Tërnava, Sava Janjiċ of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Catholic Bishop of Kosovo Dodë Gjergji, Votim Demiri, head of the Jewish Community of Kosovo, sheikh Lulzim Shehu of the Union of Tarikats of Kosovo - a Sunni Sufi body, Protestant pastor Driton Krasniqi, and Edmond Brahimaj, international head of the heterodox Bektashi Sufi order.

The inclusion of the differing Sufi trends in the ceremony was another important development, in that followers of metaphysical Islam count a large number among Albanians.

The main outcome of the second Kosovo interreligious conclave was announcement of an effort to create a permanent International Center for Interfaith Dialogue, based in Kosovo, which will hold annual conferences and engage in other worthy projects.

On Saturday, March 24, the conference began its panels, preceded by a speech from the Kosovo Minister of Foreign Affairs, Enver Hoxhaj. The government official declared that foundation of such an International Center would "promote religious harmony in Kosovo and beyond its borders."

Kosovo was scarred by religious manipulation of the armed clash on its soil in the late 1990s. The small Balkan republic lacks great financial resources and is handicapped by an exceptionally high rate of unemployment, denial of recognition by some Western European countries, and a closed door, so far, to United Nations membership. But it has staked a place for itself as a Muslim-majority country committed to interfaith cooperation, however long and arduous the road to its fulfillment may prove to be.

As has been observed elsewhere and previously, small countries may produce great ideas. The affirmation of mutual interreligious respect in Kosovo is a positive example of this principle.