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Islam in Albania
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Islam in Albania

Islam in Albania

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After decades of state atheism enforced by Enver Hoxha's Stalinist government, which ended in 1990, religion suffered greatly. Statistics coming from pre-WWII and 1957, estimated that 65 to 70 percent of the population were Muslim. However recent studies point out that this number is considerably smaller. According to an official US Government  Report:  "No data are available on active participation in formal religious services, but estimates indicate that "only 30 to 40 percent of the population practices a religion."

The Muslims of Albania are divided into two main communities: the majority associated with a traditional form of Sunni Islam and a minority associated with the Bektashis (a form of Sufi Shiism). In 1925, after Ataturk banned Sufi orders in Turkey, Albania became the world center of Bektashism, and the Albanian government subsequently recognized it as a body independent from Sunnism. Bektashis were estimated to represent approximately 20% of the country's Muslim population before 1967. Other Sufi orders of prominence in Albania were the Khalwati, Rifa'i and Sa'di. Albania has the largest indigenous European Shi'a population, outside Turkey.

Muslims are spread throughout the country but are concentrated mostly in the middle of the country and to a large extent in the south. The majority of Sunni Muslims have historically lived in the cities of Albania, while the Catholics and Bektashis mainly in remote areas. Eastern Orthodox Christians remain mainly in the south, and Catholics in the north of the country. However, in the modern times this division is not strict, particularly in the case of many urban centers, which have mixed populations. The Greek minority, concentrated in the south, belongs to the Orthodox Church. Foreign religious missionaries who have come to Albania since 1991 include Muslims from Arab Countries and Turkey, Evangelicals and Mormons who come mainly from the USA, Baha'is, Jehovah's Witnesses, and many others freely carry out religious activities.

According to the State Committee on Cults, as of 2002 there were about 17 different Islamic societies and groups active in the country; some of these groups were foreign. There were 31 Christian societies representing more than 45 different organizations and 500 to 600 Christian and Bahá'í missionaries. The largest foreign missionary groups were American, British, Italian and Greek.

Islam in Albania before 1944

Since Albania has been part of the Ottoman Empire for almost five centuries the integration of Albanians into this empire went hand in hand with their massive islamization. When Albania was declared an independent country, it emerged as the only Muslim-majority state in Europe.

In the mountainous North, the spread of Islam was gradual as it was strongly opposed by the Roman Catholic Church and the terrain was not fit for the spread of the Ottoman civilization. However the corruption and missmanagement that took over the church helped the islamization of Albanian Catholics living near the towns, which by the close of the seventeenth century, were outnumbered by the Muslims.

The same situation occurred even in the South of Albania where many Albanians abandoned Orthodoxy for Islam during the seventeenth century. The islamization of Albania was helped a lot by the Albanian Muslim class of pashas and beys who were endowed with both large estates and extensive political and administrative powers. Through their political and economic influence, they managed to convince large numbers of Albanians to convert in Islam, which with the passing of time started to personify and divide Albanians from their Christian neighbours.

For generations, religious pragmatism has been a distinctive trait of the Albanians. A Roman Catholic intellectual and poet, Pashko Vasa (1825-1892), made the trenchant remark, later co-opted by Enver Hoxha, that "the religion of the Albanians is Albanianism" (Gheg Albanian: Feja e shqyptarit asht shqyptaria).

Communist government

The Agrarian Reform Law of August 1945 nationalized most property of religious institutions, including the estates of monasteries, orders, and dioceses.

By May 1967, religious institutions had relinquished 2,169 churches, mosques, cloisters, and shrines in Albania, many of which were converted into cultural centers for young people. As the literary monthly "Nëndori" reported the event, the youth had thus "created the first Atheist nation in the world." Many Muslim imams and Orthodox priests renounced their "parasitic" past. More than 200 clerics of various faiths were imprisoned, others were forced to seek work in either industry or agriculture.

The Revival of Religion

In the 1980s, officials grudgingly began to concede that the campaign against religion had not been entirely successful, and indeed probably was counterproductive. A sociological study revealed that over 95 percent of the country's young people were choosing spouses of the same religious background, whereas, prior to the antireligious onslaught, marriages between Muslims and Christians were not uncommon. Albania's government also became more sensitive to the barrage of criticism from the international community. Hoxha's successor, Ramiz Alia, adopted a relatively tolerant stance toward religious practice, referring to it as "a personal and family matter."

Status of Religious Freedom

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. According to the 1998 Constitution, there is no official religion and all religions are equal; however, the predominant religious communities (Sunni Muslim, Bektashi, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic) enjoy a greater degree of official recognition (e.g., national holidays) and social status based on their historical presence in the country. All registered religious groups have the right to hold bank accounts and to own property and buildings. Official holidays include religious holidays from all four predominant faiths.

According to official figures, there are 14 religious schools in the country, with approximately 2,600 total students. The Ministry of Education has the right to approve the curricula of religious schools to ensure their compliance with national education standards, and the State Committee on Cults oversees implementation. There are also 68 vocational training centers administered by religious communities.

Government policy and practice contributed to the generally free practice of religion. The government is secular and the Ministry of Education asserts that public schools in the country are secular and that the law prohibits ideological and religious indoctrination. Religion is not taught in public schools. While there is no law restricting the demonstration of religious affiliation in public schools, there have been instances when students were not allowed to do so in practice. In December 2003, a male Muslim student was prohibited from having his diploma photograph taken because he had a beard. The student was eventually permitted to graduate through the intervention of the Office of the People's Advocate (a government institution tasked with investigating citizens' charges of human rights violations and protecting their fundamental freedoms). No restriction is imposed on families regarding the way they raise their children with respect to religious practices.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. Society is largely Secular. Intermarriage among members of different religions is extremely common. Religious communities take pride in the tolerance and understanding that prevails among them.

In October 2003, police arrested Kastriot Myftari, author of the book "Albanian National Islamism" on charges of inciting religious hatred against Muslims. The book contained the author's attacks on Islam and his advocacy for converting Muslims of Albania into Catholics. According to the prosecutor's office, several statements in the book demeaned and distorted the Islamic faith. The prosecutor had asked the court for 6 months imprisonment for the author. But as a result of pressure from western embassies in June, the court acquitted Myftari of all charges. The case of Myftari has not been the only case when the amicable relationship among religions has been distorted in Albania. In November 2005 a speech from Albania's president in London, aroused huge public protests from Muslim organizations and The Muslim Forum of Albania that accused the president of insulting Islam. While in early 2006 the attempt from the government to place a statue of Mother Theresa in the entrance of Shkodra and the attempt to convert the Fatih Mosque into a church, led again some Muslim organizations and intellectuals to denounce their state's attempt to Christianize the politics of Albania and ignore the feeling of Muslims.