Religious Harmony in Albania?

Speaker after speaker at the first day’s session of the conference "Global Perspectives on the Religious, Cultural, and Societal Diversity in the Balkans" here in Tirana invoked a heritage of and hope for harmony in the Balkans, and around the globe, on a religious foundation. What makes this somewhat surprising is that, historically, and in the very recent past, Albania was at one point among the most dedicated, officially atheist, of nations.

The conference itself in its range of speakers represented the reality of religious harmony-amidst-difference. Dr. Ferdinand Xhaferaj, Minister of Tourism, Culture, Youth and Sports of the Republic of Albania, opened the conference by welcoming guests and inviting our appreciation for the long history of religious harmony in Albania—back to and through the five-hundred years of Ottoman rule which ended in 1912. Dr. Dhori Kule, Rector of Tirana University, called this heritage of harmony the “diamond on the crown of Albania.”  He suggested further that we recognize our religions as "gifts," like "air and water—basic elements of human existence." Professor Paul Weller of Derby University in the UK identified the Hizmet movement, as evident in Albania and elsewhere, with the legacy of Rumi, rooted in Islam but open to difference. Haxhi Selim Muça, Head of the Muslim Community in Albania, contended that "when we respect the creature, we respect the Creator." This basic principle meant, he went on, that the circulation of respectful, free opinions is necessary to promote universal brotherhood and sisterhood. Msgr. George Fendo of the Archdiocese of Tirana pointed out how religions can be manipulated for both war-making and terrorism when they are "instrumentalized to politics." But to subsume religions to politics is to violate their purpose, Msgr. Fendo went on, which is to promote a deep tolerance. Tolerance is not equal to a superficial "I’m OK, you’re OK," he clarified. It emphasizes, rather, that "we cannot ameliorate relations with God without ameliorating relations with others." The final speaker of the morning was Fitor Muça, President of the Albanian Evangelical Alliance. "We know how to divide and destroy," this Protestant leader reminded us. "We need to learn cooperation."

In the afternoon sessions, Dr. Rostislav Rybakov from Russia offered a keynote reflecting his post-Cold War perspectives on the vitality of interreligious dialogue as a way beyond old dualisms and toward a deep peace. Dr. Mark Webb, Chair of the Philosophy Department at Texas Tech, identified two philosophical foundations for religious harmony, drawn from the teachings of Fethullah Gűlen, notably hizmet, or "service," and hoşgűrű, or "tolerance." These principles, or rather practices, combine teleological (outcome-oriented) and deontological (a priori) values, and can be universalized. They can be embraced by anyone. Hizmet and hoşgűrű thus can unite sacred communities across differences, including secularists or those of no traditional religion. Over the course of the afternoon, other speakers from Rome, Berlin, and Kosovo continued the theme: religions exist to promote harmony, not conflict. Religions build "moral capital,” in the terms of Dr. Karel Steenbring of Utrecht.  Such “moral capital" can be brought to bear collaboratively on social challenges, while also offering individuals the consolation, comfort, and guidance they have always provided.

What makes this assembly so surprising, historically, is that the government of Albania less than two decades ago would not have allowed such a gathering, much less endorsed it. During an early afternoon break, I strolled a few blocks from the conference center to enjoy the beautiful sunshine and warm Spring day. There I stumbled upon "The Pyramid," (right) the former mausoleum of Enver Hoxha ( Enver Hoxha was, to put it objectively, the leader of the Communist Party in Albania for over 40 years. He took his methods from Josef Stalin. His mausoleum is now in ruins. As I snapped a few pictures of the concrete and steel structure, a couple of young people who had climbed to the top began to slide down the angular sides, laughing in delight. It was a fitting metaphor. As the ruins of atheistic secularism crumble in Albania and around the globe, it will be up to a new generation of leaders to find paths to peace, beyond conflict, engaging the deep teachings or "moral capital" of our traditions in a delightful, we can hope, harmony.

"The Pyramid" - the former mausoleum of Enver Hoxha 334.29 KB