Entries with tag faith matters .

Interfaith Dialogue: A Call to Respond to Millions on the Move

On November 8th, the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America (the Assembly) and the Standing Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches (SCOOCH) held the Tenth Annual Orthodox Prayer Service for the United Nations Community, at the Holy Trinity Archdiocesan Cathedral in New York City.

This event brought together representatives of Member States, United Nation Agencies, Orthodoxy, and Civil Society, allowing them to enter the sacred space of the Church, thus providing them the opportunity to reflect upon their common work in prayer. During the prayer service, Archbishop Demetrios, chairman of the Assembly, offered prayers for the protection of the 65.3 million persons who have been forced to escape war and persecution. Those in attendance called to mind and prayer countless men, women, and children who have been uprooted from their homelands and rendered refugees, displaced or stateless people, too frequently denied a nationality and access to basic human rights. Many of which are now trapped in camps throughout the world, or worse, have lost their lives or disappeared during the arduous migratory journey from their homeland in search of a safe place for a chance at life. 

For many it is easy to see refugees and migrants as others or strangers. At best, most of us consider them helpless victims too far way for us to make a difference in their lives; at worst, a few consider them worthy of their plight and therefore undeserving of our care. The truth is that we are quite disconnected from these people because we can hardly imagine the circumstances under which they are forced to live. This lack of understanding often leads to fear and indifference.

Jesus Christ would tell us otherwise.

The movement of refugees and migrants displaced throughout the world is a humanitarian crisis, and a humanitarian call to action. It not only requires Orthodox Christians to lend a hand, but also other Christians- indeed all people of faith and good will. For this reason, the prayer service brought together people of all faith traditions, who answered the call to serve as agents of change and instruments that will help end this humanitarian crisis. We were also reminded that no one is excluded from God’s love, no one should be a leftover of our society.

Matthew 25: 31-45 reminds us of Christ’s mandate, namely to express love for our neighbor in tangible ways. There will be a time when each of us, irrespective of faith, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, will be asked, what did you do for the least of them? The next time you hear about migrants or refugees in the news or politics, fight the urge to judge or turn your back. Instead, ask yourself: what can I do for my brothers and sisters across the world?



Elaina Karayannis is a Fellow at the U.N. for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (un.goarch.org).

The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC). It has been actively working at the United Nations for 30 years.


“Hagia Sophia: Turkey’s Neo-Ottoman Icon”

Until the recent rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to political prominence, Turkey’s secular Kemalist order had for decades remained largely unchallenged.  This changed with the stunning landslide election victory that swept Erdogan and the AKP into power in 2002, producing enormous excitement and hope inside Turkey and abroad for genuine democratization and progressive reform. 

The initial optimism that stemmed from the AKP’s rhetorical affinity for genuine democracy, civic liberty, and religious freedom has disappeared in the fifteen years since Erdogan and the AKP have established their dominance over Turkey.  The nationalist secular authoritarianism that characterized Kemalist republican Turkey has been systematically undermined and transformed.  However, Kemalism has not been replaced by genuine democracy, civic liberty, and religious freedom.  Instead, it has been superseded by a new nationalist Islamist authoritarianism.  This new Islamist authoritarianism, that has extended its influence, if not outright domination, over Turkish society and state, continues to cautiously pay homage to Kemal but increasingly, and now openly, draws its real inspiration and aims from an idealized version of the Ottoman imperial past.   

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman vision—encapsulated, in part, in the phrase, “Turkey: From Sarajevo to Baghdad,” unabashedly first promoted by his influential former foreign minister, Ahmet Davtoglou—is premised upon Turkey’s return to its former stature as a world power, a project Erdogan himself is leading.  Unlike Kemal and his secular nationalists who saw the Islamic theocratic system as the root of the Ottoman Empire’s inability to survive in the modern world, Erdogan regards the later Ottoman Turks’ drift away from Islamism as the direct cause of the empire’s decline and dissolution. 

Consequently, although Islam under the AKP has remained an instrument to be utilized by the state, in order for Turkey to reach its full potential, Islam must again play an increasingly decisive role in culture, public affairs, and the life of the state, just as it did in Ottoman times.  This neo-Ottomanism, of course, represents a reversal of the secular Kemalist system.  According to the neo-Ottoman project, Islam will be privileged and harnessed by the state to help restore Turkey to its rightful place as a global force and as the leading country within the Muslim world.

Like Sultan Mehmet, the conqueror of Constantinople, and President Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Erdogan, whom many observers describe as a president who acts like a sultan, recognizes the importance of symbols and symbolism for forging Turkey’s Ottoman revival.  Similar to Mehmet, who used his forcible conversion of the great Byzantine Orthodox cathedral of Hagia Sophia to a mosque to showcase the superiority of Islam and the Ottoman Empire, or Kemal, who employed Hagia Sophia to demonstrate the secularization and modernization of republican Turkey, Erdogan has exploited Hagia Sophia to promote neo-Ottomanism and to mark his government’s public embrace of Islam.  In this sense, the AKP’s gradual re-Islamization of Hagia Sophia should be understood as a deliberate signal by Erdogan to the masses of his Islamist supporters of his commitment to realize a future in which Turkey, with Islam at the center of its public life, reigns supreme once more as a regional hegemon, a world power, and the leader of the Muslim community of nations. 

Given Turkey’s current neo-Ottoman orientation and its earlier provocations against the status of Hagia Sophia as a museum, the only thing surprising about the Erdogan government’s recent use of the historic Christian structure for Muslim religious purposes was that it produced any surprise at all.  The AKP’s consolidation of political power and its steady transition to Islamist authoritarianism has been accompanied by a corresponding campaign of incremental measures and steps aimed at the eventual conversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque. 

As early as 2013, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, informed reporters that Hagia Sophia would be used again as a mosque, opining: “We currently stand next to Hagia Sophia Mosque…we are looking at a sad Hagia Sophia, but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon.”  In 2014, the Turkish parliament held exploratory discussions on how to change the status of Hagia Sophia in the future.  That same year, the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom identified and condemned Turkey’s encroachment on Hagia Sophia as a “creeping conversion.”  Simultaneously, the United Nations expressed its disapproval, as it has many times since, over statements made by Turkish officials that have threatened the integrity of Hagia Sophia’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

Undeterred by international criticism, Turkey has continued its aggressive policy of targeting Hagia Sophia.  This new phase of operations also witnessed a series of deliberate actions intended to insult and humiliate Turkey’s Orthodox Christians.  On April 11, 2015, one day before Orthodox Easter Sunday, a Quran recitation sanctioned by the Diyanet (the State Directorate of Religious Affairs), for the first time in 84 years, took place inside Hagia Sophia.  The following year, Turkish authorities appointed a permanent imam to Hagia Sophia.  The timing of the Diyanet’s announcement of the imam’s appointment was made on the same Sunday in November 2016 as Turkey’s Orthodox Christians celebrated the 25th anniversary of the enthronement of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I.

The AKP’s actions enjoy widespread popular support in Turkey.  Every May 29, increasingly extravagant celebrations of the conquest of Constantinople take place in Istanbul and across Turkey.  Leading up to May 29, endless barrages of television programs and films aimed at children and adults alike depict Greek Christians as treacherous and evil, provoking nationalist and self-righteous feelings of entitlement to Hagia Sophia as a mosque.  This sort of carefully stoked public “conquest mania” produced a mass rally of activists who gathered in front of Hagia Sophia on May 29, 2016, to demand that the building be converted to a mosque. 

A crucial step in that direction was taken on June 1, 2016, when the Diyanet announced that state television would broadcast a program, highlighted by readings from the Koran, from Hagia Sophia everyday during the month of Ramadan.  The first guest of the television program was Mehmet Gormez, the head of the State Directorate of Religious Affairs, who discussed the spectacular dome crowning Hagia Sophia and, with considerable imagination and invention, explained to a nation-wide audience of tens of millions the dome’s importance in Islamic history.  

Despite the annual revelries in May that celebrate the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople and the August and September commemorations that glorify the 1922 Turkish victory against Greece and the Entente Powers, Turkish nationalists, while sidestepping the genocide of Anatolia’s Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Christians, claim victim status for themselves.  Perhaps not surprising, albeit astonishing, Hagia Sophia is now being used to symbolize Turkey’s victimhood narrative.  In the view of Turkish nationalists, especially Islamist nationalists, the Ottoman Empire was a veritable paradise destroyed by Western imperialists and their Christian toadies within the empire.  Furthermore, because of Kemal’s eagerness to have the Republic of Turkey accepted into the modern Western community of nations, Ankara was supposedly cowed or coaxed by Turkey’s recent enemies into transforming Hagia Sophia into a museum. 

This nationalist myth concludes with the assertion that this mendacious manipulation by the Western Great Powers aimed to ensure Turkey’s psychological subservience to the West by denying the Turkish people the freedom to exercise their will over the most visible symbol and reminder of Turkish greatness and triumph: the Great Fatih, the “Great Conquest,” Mosque.  This popular narrative has most recently been expanded to incorporate the newly manufactured deception that claims Kemal never actually ordered the conversion of Hagia Sophia from a mosque to a museum and that the state document and Kemal’s signature appearing therein that initiated this action are forgeries, a proposition Erdogan himself has publicly applauded. 

In coordination with the AKP, the ultranationalist Anatolian Youth Association, which has collected over 15 million signatures in support of its campaign to convert Hagia Sophia to a mosque, summarizes this thinking: “Keeping Hagia Sophia closed is an insult to our Muslim population…it symbolizes our ill-treatment by the West.”  Voicing an alternative, even if declining, perspective, a prominent Turkish scholar, who, fearing retribution from Erdogan’s supporters, commented anonymously in a June 2016 interview with Al-Monitor: “the matter of Hagia Sophia has been manipulated shamelessly in the last decade.  They [Erdogan and the AKP] are feeding the dream of an Ottoman revival…for pious Muslims everywhere, it is really sad to watch this opportunistic propaganda.”     

Widespread popular acceptance of these inventive victimhood narratives has contributed to a commonly held nationalist view that Turkey’s actual sovereignty is suppressed by the Western powers and that Turkey’s freedom, ipso facto, cannot be realized until Hagia Sophia is converted once more to a mosque.  According to this perspective, only then can Turkey become truly independent and fulfill its destiny, which means only then can Turkey regain both the glorious Ottoman inheritance and neo-Ottoman future to which it is entitled and has been denied by the West.  Hence, in the hands of the AKP government Hagia Sophia has become an uncompromising symbol, an icon and tool to mobilize Turkish nationalism and legitimize neo-Ottomanism. 

Continuing this escalating trend, Ramadan, in June 2017, was marked by a tangible increase in the aggressive use of Hagia Sophia by Turkish officials for Muslim religious and state purposes.  Abiding by the long-established practice of Western appeasement towards Turkey, most European governments and Christian religious establishments remained silent.  Only Greece’s Foreign Ministry, the United States Department of State, and UNESCO issued serious rebukes against Ankara for its provocative actions.

The Islamization of Hagia Sophia, like the Islamization of Turkish society and state, under President Erdogan and the AKP does not merely represent a simple partisan contest between secularists and Islamists for the control of Turkey.  Likewise, the plight of Hagia Sophia constitutes more than yet another example of Turkish nationalist contempt for non-Muslims and their history, a perennial feature, after all, of Turkish rule, whether secular or religious.  Instead, the significance and purpose of the recent provocations against Hagia Sophia should be viewed, and can only be understood, from a perspective that takes into account both the symbolic and utilitarian importance of the Great Fatih Mosque for Islamist Turkish nationalists. 

For Islamist Turkish nationalists, Hagia Sophia stands as the most powerful, visible reminder of Ottoman Turkey’s might and glory, a rallying standard for a return to that former greatness, and a national icon to help forge neo-Ottomanism under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  It is a religiously charged symbol that is inseparable from President Erdogan’s Islamist ambitions and imagined destiny for Turkey in Europe, the Middle East, and the world.  Moreover, the veritable re-conquest of Hagia Sophia for Islam serves as an important expression of Erdogan’s vainglorious neo-Ottoman place for himself in history.  As noted in a July 17 Financial Times International article on the anniversary of the July 15, 2016, abortive coup against Erdogan: “His [Erdogan’s] narrative means that the rise of the Turkish nation and the future of the global Muslim community hinge on Erdogan as a person and a politician.  The implication is that, if you don’t support Erdogan, you are neither a good Turk or a good Muslim.”  In this sense, the exploitation and use of Hagia Sophia by Turkey’s authoritarian Islamist government stands as a bellwether, one the international community should not continue to ignore.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

“Hagia Sophia: Turkey’s Ottoman Icon”

It is no small irony that across the globe the edifice and image most widely associated with Turkey, Istanbul, and even perhaps Islam, is a sixth-century Orthodox Christian church—the magisterial Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, or “Holy Wisdom.” Built by some 10,000 workers between 532 and 537, its patron, Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, inaugurated the construction of Hagia Sophia in the imperial capital of Constantinople with the proclamation that the Church of the Holy Wisdom would be a cathedral like “one that has never existed since Adam’s time, and one that will never exist again.”

Remarkably, Justinian’s boastful claims proved to be as correct as they were visionary. For virtually a millennium, Hagia Sophia was Christendom’s largest, most revered and awe-inspiring church. Hagia Sophia was the unrivalled ecclesial hearth of the Christian Church before the Western schism, the physical epicenter of the Orthodox Christian world, and the wondrous, breathtaking symbol of Byzantine grandeur and purpose. Indeed, for both contemporaries and historians, Hagia Sophia constituted the greatest achievement of late ancient and medieval architecture, an enduring masterpiece that embodied Byzantine civilization’s quintessential, sophisticated respect and quest for symphony and balance between the ethereal and the physical, majesty and beauty, place and boundlessness, science and mystery, creative genius and humility. Despite Hagia Sophia’s present diminished and abused condition, it is not difficult for even today’s visitor to appreciate the description found in a famous Russian ambassadorial report sent from Constantinople in 987 to Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, of what one encountered upon entering the great cathedral: “We did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth.”

When Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, virtually all of the city’s surviving cathedrals and churches were—after being desecrated and thoroughly plundered—forcibly seized and turned over to the Turks’ religious establishment to be converted to mosques and used as Muslim properties. The conquering sultan, Mehmet II, personally oversaw the conversion of Hagia Sophia. Crosses were demolished and exchanged for crescents, altars and bells were destroyed, icons were burned or hacked to pieces, mosaics and frescoes depicting Christian imagery were plastered over, and most of the cathedral’s priests were killed or enslaved. In time, four colossal minarets were erected to surround Hagia Sophia, producing the iconic image that has come to be globally associated with Ottoman Constantinople and Turkish Istanbul.

Mehmet took great satisfaction in his belief that he had fulfilled Mohammed’s prophecy articulated in the Hadith: “Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will her leader be, and what a wonderful army will that army be!” Thereafter, Constantinople and Hagia Sophia represented for the Ottoman Turks much more than merely their empire’s capital and preeminent mosque, respectively. The conquest of Christianity’s greatest city and church was understood by Mehmet and his successors as divine proof of the leading role in the Muslim world to which the Ottoman Empire was entitled, a belief also manifested by the Turks’ subsequent relocation of the Islamic Caliphate to Constantinople.

Indeed, the purpose for the construction of the massive minarets that now tower over Hagia Sophia was to project to the world Islam’s triumph over Christendom’s greatest empire, city, and church. The capture of Hagia Sophia confirmed and symbolized in the Ottomans’ imagination their belief in the superiority of their state and faith over all other nations and all religions, a putative affirmation of their providential role and destiny in history. Hence, the Ottomans formally dedicated their greatest, most celebrated single piece of loot—Hagia Sophia—as Great Fatih Mosque, or “Great Conquest Mosque.”

Despite the Turks’ conviction that their mastery over the great, coveted prizes of Constantinople and Hagia Sophia signaled their inevitable conquest of the remainder of Christian Europe, the Ottoman state showed signs of weakness by the sixteenth century and by the seventeenth century began a long, miserable decline and recession that culminated in the complete dissolution of their empire in the early twentieth century. Led by the Turkish nationalist, Mustafa Kemal, the Republic of Turkey, which emerged in the early 1920s to succeed the Ottoman Empire and to abolish the Caliphate, was premised on secularism. Kemal’s modern Turkey was a rejection of the Islamic theocratic system that he and his modernizing nationalists held responsible for the collapse of the old Ottoman order.

Kemalist Turkey did not, however, decouple Islam from its nation-building project. The Kemalist state’s efforts to create a homogeneous Turkish society included assigning a prominent role to Islam as a defining cultural feature of Turkish national identity, or “Turkishness.” In short, official “secularism” involved the use of Islam by the state as an instrument to impose conformity to a uniform model of “Turkishness.”

In modern Turkey secularism has produced neither freedom for all faiths nor separation of church and state. Instead, Turkish secularism has meant state control of religion through the official policy carried out by the Diyanet (the State Directorate of Religious Affairs, the governmental institution responsible for regulating and directing Islam in Turkish society). Likewise, the Kemalists’ non-Western, non-democratic version of secularism has also meant that Turkey’s non-Islamic religions and communities, inasmuch as they are regarded as impediments to universal “Turkishness,” are to be viewed with suspicion, treated with hostility, and subjected to a policy of steady, systematic persecution, with the goal being their final elimination.

Symbols and symbolism were, of course, very important to the Kemalist nation-building project. It was, consequently, neither a surprise nor a move that produced any resistance when Mustafa Kemal, presiding over Turkey’s one-party “secular democracy,” closed Hagia Sophia to Muslim worship in 1931 and reopened the historic structure as a museum in 1935. Just as Sultan Mehmet in the fifteenth century appreciated the symbolism of converting Hagia Sophia, the grandest of Christian cathedrals, to a Muslim Ottoman mosque for the furtherance of his imperial ambitions, President Kemal in the 1930s understood the symbolic value of transforming Hagia Sophia from a mosque—the quintessential iconographic symbol of the Ottoman Islamic past—to a Turkish museum for the advancement of his modern secular nation-building project at home and for the promotion of his country’s image abroad.

The second part, and conclusion of this essay, which explores the recent political and religious uses of Hagia Sophia by the current post-Kemalist, Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is forthcoming under the title “Hagia Sophia: Turkey’s Neo-Ottoman Icon.”

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

The Ecumenical Way

A few years ago, my parents threw a college graduation party for my brother. I had just finished the first year of my M.Div. program, so naturally everyone’s ice-breaker was the I-don’t-care-I-just-don’t-know-what-else-to-ask question “how was your first year of school?” But hey, it’s better than the I-don’t-care-I-just-feel-obligated question my brother was getting: “so what’s next?”

One of my neighbors was raised Catholic, and not marginally. His family is Polish and his grade-school teachers were nuns. At some point in college however, he met Jerry Garcia and became his disciple instead. Yet, my neighbor still knew enough church-talk to carry on a conversation better than most guests.

He asked me about some of the differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, so I began to explain that the breach in communion is not as clear-cut as it often seems. Suddenly, an older relative of mine, who has likely received more catechesis from memes than from any formal religious education program, suddenly interjected, “Yes, you split off from us!”

I sighed. There it was: ignorant Orthodox entitlement. She probably thinks Jesus was Greek too. Her conviction spoke louder than her comment and is a reflection of a common misconception and strong historical bias influencing the Church’s relationships This has a tendency to create an us vs. them mentality toward the rest of Christendom. Even through the Holy and Great Council does the Church seek to amend this understanding by fostering dialogue and taking a lead role in the Ecumenical Movement.

As I attempted to quell the inadvertent hostility her comment may have imposed, my neighbor interrupted to say, “It’s ok, we all believe the same thing anyways.” My relative, in her usual contradiction of thought, agreed.

The conversation ended and I was left baffling over how it swung from the rhetoric of ultra-conservatives to that of John Lennon.

I reflect on this occasion because it likens to the tension an Orthodox can feel when engaging in ecumenical relations. Some are hardened by akribeia and object to interaction, but where is the economia and compassion toward our Christian neighbors who may live truer to Christ’s teachings? Some find certain practices and beliefs of other traditions more appealing and begin to customize their faith, but are they not at risk of diluting the Orthodox way? It can be difficult to navigate, but the perspectives shouldn’t be polarizing.

Every mainstream church in the United States has men and women, ordained and lay, who are responsible for facilitating ecumenical relations on behalf of the greater body. They are the ambassadors constantly in communication about issues of faith, order, and philanthropy.

There are many opportunities for collaboration, but, once a year, the ecumenical officers gather in retreat. Rather than convening to produce a statement or develop a program, the purpose of the retreat is to allow for organic dialogue among communions, which increases personal relationships and promotes comprehension and appreciation.

His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios Geron of America with representatives from eleven different Churches and Communions

His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios Geron of America with representatives from eleven different Churches and Communions.


Last month, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America had the honor of hosting this year’s retreat and welcomed eleven officers. If you ask them what the goal of the ecumenical movement is, each will tell you it is for the restoration of God’s Church. If that sounds prodigious, it’s because it is. Push them further on how such a lofty goal is to be realized, each will humbly admit they can’t provide the specifics. However, they will likely suggest the following:

First, like all ministries in the Church, a Christ-centered approach is required to meet one another with a clean heart and true intentions. As we seek to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, so too should we strive to fulfill Christ’s prayer “that they all may be one” (John 17:21). Regardless of who has maintained the genuine faith, we must acknowledge that Christendom is fractured and “if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25). It is our responsibility to put forth effort into uniting all Christians.

Second, it must be understood that the goal is abstract. No one knows how unity will be achieved and expressed, which makes the case for ecumenism difficult to articulate. This lack of a clear vision discourages some and keeps them in the trajectory of isolation. However, those laboring in the ecumenical vineyard agree that unity will be achieved according to God’s will, and that we must take initiative when God provides opportunities for contact and growth. The officers appreciate these instances for retreat as a manifestation of God’s will and a small, yet progressive, part of His plan.

Third, proper and unbiased knowledge of history is necessary to understand why certain divisions in Christianity were forged. In most cases, I would argue, the egos of influential individuals, or reactions to such, are the causes of longstanding divisions. Therefore, we cannot retain the grudge of past generations to further this destruction but instead move forward with reconciliation (see 4B).

Ecumenists know that communication is delicate and words must be precise. They speak with sensitivity so as to advance the movement, not hinder it. The first tangible step is to listen and learn from each other’s story. Such is the intention of their retreat; the ecumenical officers enjoy conversation to better understand the perspectives of each communion. They are open to a diversity of expressions toward God as well as to the Spirit’s presence and abilities. After all, no one can dictate limits on God’s infinite and unconditional love.

The ecumenical officers engage at a national level and will continue to retreat together. However, there are ways for all Orthodox faithful to interact with and learn about the Christians in their own neighborhoods, such as co-sponsoring an event, contributing toward a common social initiative, or participating in shared worship or a fellowship meal. We each can offer of ourselves to work toward the reunification of God’s Church. As we do so, remember that the task is noble and directed by God, to Whom we constantly ask, “surround us with your holy angels that, guarded and guided by them, we may arrive at the unity of the faith, and the understanding of your ineffable glory.”


Andrew Calivas is the Coordinator of Ecumenical Programs for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical & Interfaith Relations.


Faith Witness in Albania

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.

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.


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