Multicultural and Multireligious: the Albanian Model for Coexistence
Matteo Tacconi 16 November 2017

Preserved in the library of the Catholic seminary in Shkodër are a number of the very few books which have survived the blaze set alight by communists at the immediate aftermath of the war. They are stored in plastic protective cases. Leonardo Falco,  young dean of the seminary, and Mark Pashka, newly-ordained priest, uncover them to allow us a glimpse of the texts. A few small incinerated fragments of paper fall from the books onto the table they are opened on.

Situated in the north, Shkodër is a very significant city for Albanian Catholics. It is the centre of the irradiation and a symbol of martyrdom. Many of the thirty-eight priests killed during the Communist era, and beatified by the Vatican in 2016, were members of this diocese. One of them, the Jesuit Giovanni Fausti, was the seminary’s dean. Arrested at the end of 1945, he was put on trial, sentenced to death and executed by firing squad in March 1946.

Father Fausti is a martyr, but he was also a real pioneer in establishing a dialogue between Christians and Muslims. He studied Islam, establishing relations with its representatives and worked to create mutual interchanges.

Through his work, the Jesuit from Brescia contributed significantly to giving life to the model of interreligious respect and tolerance that is characteristic of Albania. Muslims (Sunnis and Bektashi) and Christians (Orthodox and Catholics) entertain balanced and peaceful relations.

Other than this coexistence being important in itself, it assumes a greater significance when one considers the extent to which religion has, intentionally or not, become a divisive and distorted societal element.

Thanks to this plural and relaxed model for coexistence, Albania has become an esteemed case study.  In 2014, Pope Francis travelled to the country to pay homage to its multicultural social fabric.

Mark Pashka, who followed the Jesuit path in his studies at the seminary, talked to us about the role played by Father Fausti. “When he arrived in Albania at the end of the 1920s – not long after independence in 1912, which sanctioned the end of the long Ottoman dominion – he immediately understood that studying Islam would have allowed him to understand the predominantly Muslim Albanian society .”

Father Fausti was convinced that the condition experienced by Catholics, that of being a minority, could be ameliorated if an effort were made to reciprocally understand the other. “He realised that he should start by analysing the Bible and the Koran and the points of contact between the two Holy Books, such as the figure of Abraham and the prophets, or the roles attributed to Jesus and Mary in the Koran. This was the starting point for establishing a dialogue and an encounter with Islam,” said Pashkja. According to this young priest, Father Fausti was prophetic. “He created something exceptional for future generations and for multi-religious equilibrium. He showed us the path to be followed and did so not on the basis of abstract principles, but on rational research.”

Perhaps even more important was the choice to emphasize the clear distinction between state and religion, established by Albania’s founding fathers. “Any possible conflict between religious groups could have fractured national unity and so, from the very beginning, Albania was organised as a secular state,” explained Artur Nura, correspondent for Radio Radicale in Albania adding that, after the fall of the Communist regime, these characteristics had re-emerged and were reasserted .

Communism strongly opposed all religions. Many priests of all denominations were persecuted. Places of worship were either destroyed or converted into cinemas, agricultural warehouses and assigned other functions. The seminary in Shkodër was obviously closed down, only to be reopened in 1992. Father Leonardo Falco has reported that, in addition to its key task, that of education, all activities now take into account Father Fausti’s learnings and the country’s pluralist context, (“we still feel his presence”, said the dean). “We have good relations, including cooperation with the Islamic Academy in Tirana and the Orthodox seminary in Durazzo and, every year, we host common study days in which a topic is addressed from differing perspectives in an attempt to find common ground.” Last year, the subject of the discussion was the role played by women”.

According to Dorian Demetja, who is the Islamic Community’s head of the Department for Relations between Religions, the Ottomans too deserve credit for having had such good relations between the different religions. When they assumed control over the country, many Albanians converted to Islam but those who did not were not persecuted and did not suffer particular acts of intolerance. Hence, the religious context remained fluid and pluralistic, as Demetja told us when we met in his office in Tirana.

Nowadays, things are much the same with many examples bearing witness to this, not only from the institutional perspective which considers relations between different faiths. This Albanian model can also be seen in everyday life. In Derven, north of Tirana, there is a small Catholic church which has been rebuilt, thanks partially to contributions provided by local Muslims. And it is a Muslim who works as the church’s custodian. In the northern town of Lac, the Franciscan Sanctuary of St. Anthony is a place that is only formally Catholic, since Albanians of all beliefs go on pilgrimages to this place of worship set high on a hill. In Leskovic, on the border with Greece, there is a sanctuary visited by both Muslims and Christians. It is thanks to this deep-rooted atmosphere of tolerance and openness that the Bektashi, an Islamic brotherhood that tends towards Shia Islam, have found in Albania a new home, after being banished from Constantinople when accused of heresy. It is for these very same reasons that no Jew was ever handed over to the Nazis; the only such case in Europe thanks to the protection offered by local families.

Regardless, misunderstandings and disputes remain. A few years ago in Shkodër, Muslims were very offended when a statue was built in honour of Mother Teresa. The problem was resolved also thanks to an agreement stating that every Albanian religion would acknowledge the saint as a national symbol, not just belonging to the Catholic community.

“A forest does not become more beautiful if there is only one kind of tree. It is beautiful when there are many different kinds of trees and each is free to grow.” It was with these words that Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos, leader of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania, summarised the spirit of the Albanian model.

It was with the archbishop, who received us in Tirana, that our investigation of the Albanian model ended. Yannoulatos believes that it is a positive thing that such a model exists, but one must keep working to ensure continuity. “As soon as Communism fell, we established a dialogue that was not theological but, rather, was a dialogue for living. The results have since been excellent. Tolerance prevails, although it is not a word I am fond of as it is arrogant in essence. I prefer to use the word respect.”

Translated by Francesca Simmons

Credit: Gent Shkullaku / AFP – Citizens take photos during the arrival of Pope Francis prior to his mass’ celebration at Mother Teresa square in central Tirana on September 21, 2014. The pontiff travels to Albania on September 21 for a packed one-day visit that will spotlight the country as a model of inter-religious harmony, amid turmoil in the Middle East and rising intolerance in Europe