During his recent visit to Albania, Pope Francis nominated it as an example of great religious harmony. This was his first official European trip outside Italy, and the first to a Muslim-majority country. Hence his choice of destination was questioned.
The Vatican said the pope chose to visit Albania because he wanted to highlight the harmony between Christians and Muslims at a time when terrorist groups are twisting religious beliefs and butchering innocent people.
“There is a rather beautiful characteristic of Albania, one which gives me great joy: I am referring to the peaceful coexistence and collaboration that exists among followers of different religions,” Pope Francis said during his address.
“The climate of respect and mutual trust between Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims is a precious gift to the country,” he added.
Interreligious harmony is refreshing, considering religious tensions seem a source of conflict lately. But Albania, by creating a government of national unity among Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics, has proven everyone wrong.
According to 2011 census, 58.79 percent of Albania adheres to Islam and 17 percent practices Christianity, making it the second largest religion in the country. Another quarter of Albanians are either irreligious or belong to other religious groups. According to a 2010 survey, religion today plays an important role in the lives of only 39 percent of Albanians, and the country is ranked among the least religious in the world. Amazingly, it was the only country in Europe where the Jewish population experienced growth during the Holocaust.
So what is it that makes a small, impoverished Balkan state such an unbelievable example of religious harmony?
Under communist rule from 1945 to 1990 religious practices were strictly prohibited. Post the communist era there was a deliberate and well planned drive to re-integrate religion into the country’s national life.
The World Learning Project Fostering Religious Harmony in Albania (RelHarmony), sponsored by USAID, worked extensively to sustain religious harmony and foster better understanding within and among Albania’s religious communities.
Constructive workshops, discussions, debate and film screenings were held regularly throughout the country involving citizens and religious leaders. These activities developed social harmony and tolerance of differences.
A study of the country’s history brings it down to two elements:
Nationalism Over Religion:
Dr. Tonin Gjuraj, associate professor at the European University of Tirana, Albania, cites a simple reason: Albanian society is based on rigid social organization of the kinship system. Social and family structure remained almost the same, characterized by ancient habits and customs throughout history despite International interventions and influences. The Catholic and Muslim Highlanders lived in the same tribal society and their everyday activities were regulated by customary law. Their reaction to the tradition of Albanian culture was not based on religious distinctions, but on the predominant patriotic feeling.
Keeping Politics Free Of Religion:
By keeping the two separate, Albanian society managed to avoid political and social tensions. Civil and social divisions are more significant than religious ones. There is an air of tolerance and no one seems to care what anyone’s belief is and who he or she prays to.