Albania, which is not high on most desirable destination lists, has long competed against a not-so-untruthful global reputation. Having spent 12 days touring most of the country, I can attest that some clichés are rightly earned. But any minor nation that spent 45 years of the last century completely isolated under a repressive and paranoid Communist dictator may have a few issues here and there.
However, despite Albania’s underdevelopment, there is a beauty to the land and the people that is slowly garnering attention. One such dimension is the religious plurality that has blossomed out of the world’s first atheist state.
Due to its history and geographic location, an intricate religious web is woven in Albania. Throughout the first millennium, the territory of modern Albania was essentially split with the northern half belonging to the Western Roman Empire and the southern portion belonging to the Eastern, resulting in Catholic and Orthodox populations, respectively. The territory changed hands a few times as the Bulgarians, Serbians, and Venetians all vied for control in the Late Middle Ages. Finally, the rise of the Ottoman Empire consumed the Balkan peninsula and brought Sunni Islam, from which sprouted the Bektashi order of Sufism. Many Albanian natives converted to Islam, by choice or by force, but Catholic and Orthodox Christians survived albeit in an oppressive condition.
An Orthodox church and a mosque stand side-by-side in Berat, Albania.
After World War II, Enver Hoxha seized Albania’s government as first secretary of the country’s communist party and held grip until his death in 1985. During his reign, Hoxha pushed communist objectives that makes Joseph Stalin seem like a reasonable man. By 1967, his aggressive agenda officially outlawed the practice of religion. Whereas even the Soviet Union left some wiggle room, Albania became the first nation to mandate strict atheism as government policy.
Churches and mosques were destroyed or converted into hotels and nightclubs, clerics were imprisoned, tortured and murdered, and the people were forced to abandon the faith of their forefathers in fear of their lives. When communism finally toppled in 1991, the religious landscape was decimated. Yet, like tiny seedlings in an arid climate, the consciousness of Albania’s religious communities revived as democracy opened the floodgates.
Learning from its experiences, history has taught Albania the necessity of a peaceful religious coexistence. Now a secular state, the small country does not ignore or repel the importance of its local religious traditions. As the new parliament was forming, civil authorities worked with religious leaders to ensure a smooth, tolerant transition that would minimize the risk of an extremist takeover.
The spiritual leaders of these communities have worked tirelessly over the last twenty-five years to fulfill the underserved needs of the Albanian people. Outreach programs, such as food and homeless shelters, orphanages, vocational schools and medical facilities, were established to fill the gaps of a government trying to get back on its feet. They even helped rebuild each other’s places of worship.
In all that they did, Albanian Muslims and Christians did it freely for the love of God and the love of their neighbor. Herein lies the foundation of World Interfaith Harmony Week, which begins today.
Declared in 2010 by the United Nations General Assembly, World Interfaith Harmony Week was proposed by King Abdullah II of Jordan after witnessing the ongoing religious turmoil in the Middle East. A common thread of the Abrahamic faiths, King Abdullah reiterated the greatest commandment of loving both God and neighbor with all one’s heart, mind and soul.
From this, the United Nations has proclaimed the first week of February as a time to “spread…the message of interfaith harmony and goodwill in the world’s churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship…based on love of God and love of one’s neighbor or on love of the good and love of one’s neighbor, each according to their own religious traditions or convictions.”
World Interfaith Harmony Week serves an important purpose in our increasing secular lives today. It sets aside time to reflect on our relationships with our religious neighbors. How well do we know each other? Are we cooperating for the greater good of society and the honor of God? Do we see Christ in our neighbors?
Such interaction does not give reason to compete with other faiths or water down one’s own, but rather it provides the opportunity to bear witness to one’s faith. For an Orthodox Christian, all interreligious engagements should be approached with humility, asking “what can I learn?” And upon observing our neighbor, we then ask “what can I offer?” What we learn and what we offer will depend on the circumstances, yet we always respond with the same embrace the Church offers her children.
Albania is just one of the many parts of the world where the Good Samaritan has strengthened communities and given life to the beaten and downtrodden. World Interfaith Harmony Week invites us all to return to the core of our beliefs, that innate goodness with which Christ created all people—the goodness sought and expressed by all faith traditions—so that we may be the Good Samaritan Christ has called us to become.
Andrew Calivas is the Coordinator of Ecumenical Programs for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical & Interfaith Relations.