The country that’s famous for tolerance

Pope Francis has praised this little Balkan nation for its notable religious tolerance, saying it should serve as an example for the world.

Although this was the first time I’d met Hasib Buba, I had already heard his voice a number of times echoing through the winding streets and alleyways of Berat, a small city in south-central Albania.

With neatly parted dark hair, a well-maintained beard and a slim-fitting button down, the 25-year-old religious leader explained that as muezzin, one of his duties is to deliver the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer broadcasted from the spire-like minaret, five times each day.

He’s the very picture of a devout Muslim – but I was surprised to learn that this had not always been the case.

“I was actually raised Christian,” Buba explained, “and for years I followed that path. When I was older, I got into a debate with one of my friends, who was Muslim. The debate went on for months, and in order to be better prepared for our discussions, I started reading about Islam; I learned everything I could about it.”

“In the end, I won the debate, but the process led me to ask questions about my own beliefs. The answers provided by Islam made more sense to me, so I converted,” he said.

Though the choice to convert may seem a surprising one to many, the reality is that Albania has long been regarded as a place of religious tolerance and harmony.

The predominant religions are Islam and Christianity, with Muslims making up more than half the population. Still, there remains a common unity between the people of the country. Churches and mosques often occupy the same streets, and interfaith marriages are widely accepted within the culture. Berat is especially noteworthy, as its Onufri Museum holds the Ikona Burimi Jetëdhënës (Icon of the Life Giving Source). This 18th-century Albanian work of art depicts a Christian scene with minarets rising in the background and is lauded as a symbol of the country's famous religious harmony.

In a 2014 visit, Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, praised the Balkan nation for its notable religious tolerance, saying it should serve as an example for the world. During his speech in Tirana, Pope Francis praised the “peaceful coexistence” of religions in the country, adding, “this is especially the case in these times where an authentic religious spirit is being perverted by extremist groups, and where religious differences are being distorted.”

Curious to know how Albania's population had remained unified, I asked Buba for his take on the subject.

“Albania has always had some type of acceptance of others. If you look throughout the country’s history, you see harmony in every century. Even during the Ottoman Empire. Many people attribute it to communism, but I don’t believe that. If you look at the history before, it just doesn’t make sense.”

Buba is referring to the period between 1944 and 1992 when Albania was under a strict communist regime begun by dictator Enver Hoxha. Over the course of the regime, Albania became a complete isolationist state with virtually no ties to the outside world. In 1967, Hoxha tightened his grip on the country even further by banning all religion, declaring Albania the world’s first atheist state. During this time, churches and mosques were seized by the military and either destroyed or turned into cinemas or dance halls. Clergy members were stripped of their titles, shamed and in some cases incarcerated.

Some speculate that this violent ousting of organized religion resulted in Albanians adopting a secular mindset, and that the country is void of any religious tension because faith is not an important element of life for many today. Buba begs to differ, though, dismissing this as cynical.

To illustrate how religious harmony exists in Albania, he brought up the recent example of Malbardh, a small village in northern Albania. A few years ago, the little area made headlines across the country when the local Muslim population raised funds and rebuilt the village’s lone Catholic church, which had been torn down with so many others during Hoxha's reign.

Malbardh is not the only area to have stories like this. Leskovik, a village near the Greek border, is known for its communal prayer shrine that was built from the ruins of a mosque destroyed during WWII. The ruins remained untouched during communism, but now the shrine, located at the base of the former minaret, is frequented by Muslims and Christians alike for prayer.

These tales are especially pertinent today. With fears growing around extremist groups, it seems that the stake dividing faiths is only being driven deeper.

“I hear all this talk of people wanting to build walls and ban believers of certain faiths from entering countries,” Buba said. “This is only going to breed hate and misunderstanding. The reason harmony exists in Albania is because we engage with one another. We debate, we discuss and we educate ourselves about those around us.”

During my two years in the country, I’d witnessed what Buba spoke about firsthand. There are numerous Muslim and Christian religious events in which practitioners of both are in attendance. The Day of the Blessed Water, for instance, is a Christian holiday celebrated by participants diving into a river in search of a cross, but it is open to all and has had many Muslim winners over the years. Likewise, Buba explained that it is not uncommon for Christians to participate in feasting during the Muslim holiday of Eid, which breaks the fast of Ramadan. By engaging with one another so frequently and in such meaningful ways, Albanian Muslims and Christians have created a strong community founded upon understanding and respect.

It’s hard to say whether the world will take Buba and Albania’s example to heart, but there’s something to be said for the little Balkan state in which children grow up hearing both the call to prayer and the ringing of church bells from outside their windows. For them, coexistence and harmony have become as natural as breathing.

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