Interview of “Religions for Peace” with Dr. Genti Kruja*
What does the Interreligious Council of Albania represent?
The Interreligious Council of Albania (IRCA) is the fruit of interfaith cooperation over the years of religious communities in Albania.
For this, we have evidence, photos and numerous documents, where religious leaders are together in historical moments of Albania. Therefore, this tradition of cooperation had come to be formalized through an institution, which became a reality in 2007, while the founding ceremony took place on October 22, 2009 in the presence of the President of the Republic and many guests from around the world.
IRCA was founded by four leaders of traditional religious communities in Albania. This institution consists of the Council of the Presidency, which is composed of the leaders of the five religious communities, where each of them presides over the presidency in rotation for one year.
The Board of Presidency of the Interreligious Council of Albania is composed of the heads of the five religious communities:
For 2019, the head of IRCA was Archbishop Anastasios, who at the X World Assembly of the organization “Religions for Peace” held in Germany was re-elected as Honorary President of RfP. As for 2020, the Presidency is headed by Mons. George Frendo, who has also been appointed this year a member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue over the next 5 years.
IRCA has often issued joint statements, giving clear messages for the benefit of Albanian society, as well as messages to Albanian politics, or the international community, becoming an example of cooperation for the common good. Two of these statements made in 2018 have been of particular importance. The first was on the occasion of the recommendation for the opening of negotiations with the EU, addressed to President Macron and Chancellor Merkel. The second one was on the joint commitment to interfaith dialogue, developed in an international conference on May 3, 2018 in Tirana by three universities of religious communities in Albania, “Bedër” University, the Catholic University “Lady of Good Counsel” and “Logos University”.
IRCA, as an institution of special importance is emphasized every year in the report on freedom of religion, published by the US Department of State, emphasizing the role of this institution in promoting interfaith dialogue.
Recent months of isolation due to the spread of the virus have been challenging for religious communities. How have religious communities reacted, what can you say about that?
Religious communities in Albania in an unusual situation in these 30 years of freedom of religion have been the first to take measures, temporarily closing the cult facilities for mass forgiveness and prayer. This is a painful thing for the community of believers, because it coincided with Easter, Ramadan and Eid, but reasonable and grounded and religiously in protection of the health and lives of believers and all citizens. The Prophet Muhammad said that, in a place where an epidemic has fallen, neither go nor leave that place. Thus preventing its spread.
With the reopening of almost every activity were reopened and the performance of rites in places of worship, continuing the preservation of protocols to protect the health of believers.
Religious communities constantly advise believers to adhere to the rules set by the WHO and Albanian public health institutions, which are beneficial in protecting against the spread of the Covid virus 19.
In a prophetic saying, it is said that every disease has its own cure. Therefore, religion also encourages science towards progress to discover the cure, or vaccine of this virus, hoping in God to heal those affected by this virus and to remove it from the whole world society.
Was this difficult situation for religious communities, perhaps the first after communism?
Normally that was an unusual situation in these 3 decades. However, let us not forget that our family members during the communist era fasted and prayed in secret under conditions of psychological violence and persecution. So this period is accepted as a time of trial and reflection.
We have said before that each of us, believer and atheist, ordinary citizen and politics make a reflection, of what we can do better with our family, our country, and ourselves.
Everyone needs improvement and this improvement will definitely bring change in society because we need to reflect, do things better, think more and for the other, not be so greedy and selfish, love it more nature and its resources that come from GOD and we have misused them, to be less wasteful and closer to the needy.
Man is such a being, who whenever he is in difficulty feels more the need for a rest and peace of mind. And who better than faith in God to give this peace.
So people, since this situation coincided with the religious holidays for Christians and Muslims, has served for more social and humanitarian solidarity, but also for a return from God and remembrance of the infinite good that He has given us, such as health and life, which we need to take more care of, especially the state and health organizations, which unfortunately leave much to be desired in the field of health.
How does the project benefit from it’s multi-religious nature?
Inter-religious harmony among Albanians is one of the most distinguished cultural values of the national culture. Sociological studies have shown that besides the cultural value of hospitality, understanding and co-existence constitute some of the most prominent profiles of the psycho-cultural modeling of Albanians throughout their history.
The Albanians’ multi religious affiliation makes their identity richer and more complex. Thus, a historical conviction was established among Albanians that differences of all types such as religious, regional, racial, genetic, national, cultural, etc. were not a risk, but an asset. Such a conviction has shaped and widened the religious tolerance among the Albanians.
Interreligious Council of Albania was established with the support of Religions for Peace. The five religious communities Muslims, Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants and Bektashi (a Sufi Muslim order) although different in percentage of population, they are equally represented in the IRC structures such as Board of Presidency, Executive Board, Department of Women and Department of Youth.
Last year there were established two new departments, Department of Woman, which is composed of 5 women from the 5 different religious institutions and Department of Youth, where are 10 young women and men from the 5 different religions. Immediate after their establishments, the National Consultations supported by RfP were organized, where the role of woman and youth was crucial.
Our last activity relates to the Covid-19 response, where Christian – Muslim, Youth and Women from the departments of Interreligious Council of Albania organized a humanitarian event to help 175 families of different religions in need with food packages, delivered to their homes. This is just one model of how RfP and ECRL in collaboration with IRCA have come together and responded to the negative impact of Coronavirus, through helping multi-faith communities that are in need.
It was amazing to see a Muslim woman teacher with a nun, a Muslim imam with a Christian priest holding aid boxes together.
How did you go about supporting the families that were economically hit by Covid-19?
Religious communities for 30 years after the fall of the communist system have established many educational institutions, in addition to religious ones. They are spread all over the country with their institutions, therefore they have accurate databases for families in need, which help them from time to time in cooperation with international humanitarian foundations.
In November 2019, a strong magnitude earthquake struck Albania, where many people died too many buildings were damaged.
Religious communities open the doors of places of worship, churches, mosques and tekkes to house the homeless.
In February, IRCA through the Department of Women and the Department of Youth organized a social and cultural program with 30 orphans in the earthquake area. In the framework of these activities, the last project was designed to help 50 orphan families in the earthquake area and 125 other families in need of this area, whose situation of Covid 19 had aggravated their situation. economic.
To handle the projects, IRC Albania cooperated with the National Association of Orphans of Albania and the 5 different religious communities in Albania, Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Bektashi.
Although with different percentages of representation we asked for equal numbers lists from each community signed by each community and together with Muslim and Christian boys and girls we set up some distribution points in churches, mosques and religious centers. In addition, we went to some boats and earthquake umbrellas where some of these families in need live and distributed aid packages all together.
How does the project benefits from the involvement of the department of women and youth?
Interfaith Woman and Youth department members were very excited to organize this event. Religious Communities in Albania have their database of poor families and we coordinated with their list to find 25 families from 5 different religious communities, in totally 125 family and 50 orphans families which makes a total of 175 families and approximately 1.000 people helped.
The confrontation of these families with these young men and women of different religious faiths brought emotion and feelings of unconditional support and love. Photos of this activity went viral in many Albanian and foreign media. They were distributed on many social networking sites, inspiring many young people in the model of interfaith cooperation.
Did this project deepen your relationship with the religious communities? What areas of collaboration do you see in the future, promoting interfaith dialogue in Albania?
Definitely, this activity strengthens the relationship between the women and the youth of different religious communities. Our message was widely reported in the media, where the photo of a Muslim lecturer with a nun and an imam with a Christian priest became a hit on social networks. Public opinion welcomed this event as a purposeful model of collaboration. We altogether went to some churches and mosques to distribute the aid packages.
Such activities will further promote interfaith collaboration and I think some issues are very important, issues, which I shared also in the webinar organized by RfP International, and they are:
There is a strong but accepted religious divide in Albania, has this affected the way your scheme works?
I think that this division has had a positive impact, because it has brought cooperation in a new format, that of Muslim and Christian women and youth together. Different religious communities are like pieces of different colors in a mosaic of interfaith harmony.
In Albania, there exists an interfaith cooperation among religious institutions, among universities founded by religious communities, the three theologies, Islamic, Orthodox and Catholic. We are establishing a joint master as well in interfaith dialogue, have organized several national and international conferences on interfaith dialogue and 10 interfaith symposia with students and professors of three theologies.
Inter Religious Council of Albania is the largest and the only platform in the entire Republic of Albania which operates in the interfaith field by coordinating the activity of interfaith dialogue through the five religious communities in Albania who have special agreements with the state and ratified in parliament. IRCA in 2018 was awarded “Sergio de Mello” international peace prize in Poland.
In 2019, IRCA signed a memorandum of understanding with The Coordination Center for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE).
Last month IRCA applied to the project of US Embassy, “Interfaith Women and Youth as the key actors in preventing extremism and radicalism”, to be implemented by the Department of Women and the Department of Youth.
This project aims to train youth and women of different religions, as key actors in promoting coexistence and interfaith harmony, to build communities of safe and resistant to violent extremism.
Which religious communities is your scheme getting the most attention from?
IRCA has an unwritten rule. In every activity, or joint statement we made it in full unanimity. Although in simple decisions, a simple majority of votes is enough we do not make any decision without everyone agreeing. If 1 of the 5 leaders of religious communities, who are also members of the Board of the Presidency, does not agree, we do not make that statement, or find the opportunity to agree with it all. Therefore, we have an inclusion with equal votes in every decision we make. So even in the last project everyone showed willingness to cooperate.
Albania was declared the first openly atheist country in the world during Enver Hoxha’s regime, to what extent do you think this has affected religion in the country?
The communist regime started the war on religion directly in 1944 with the beginning of this regime. Muslim and Christian clergy scholars were arrested, imprisoned, exiled and executed, the publication of religious books was banned and then all religious schools were closed. This lasted 23 years. In 1967 all religious communities were closed, thousands of churches, mosques were demolished, and law banned the religion. The Atheist Museum, the only one in the world, was also opened, displaying cartoons mocking religion. Atheist propaganda influenced the education of the younger generation. Nevertheless, religion was kept secret in the house. People prayed in secret. This feeling triumphed in 1990 while the communist regime was still going on. Thousands of Muslims and Christians gathered to hold the first ceremony after many years in the only remaining mosque of the 36 mosques in the city of Shkodra, and together held the first Catholic Mass in the old cemetery of the city. Thousands of residents challenged the regime. The ceremonies were led by clerics who had suffered over 20 years in communist prisons.
The reopening of the first mosque and first church in Albania, in November 1990, after a quarter-of-a-century ban, was an expression of harmony and of religions confronting the communist regime, which was still in power. The Catholic and Muslim young men were coworkers during opening ceremonies in the church and mosque. Even though I was only thirteen then, I still remember those days, when many Catholic volunteers worked together with the Muslim volunteers. Who can say whether there were more Muslims than Catholics among the participants who attended the first sermon given by H. Sabri Koçi on the mosque reopening? H. Sabri Koçi’s speech will remain historic because it opened the first Islamic religious ceremony after communism with the following words: “Dear Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox brothers and, above all, Albanian brothers.”
In 1993, when Pope John Paul II came to Albania, not only Catholics but also Muslims and Orthodoxies awaited him. They closed their homes and went out on the roads of Shkodra and Tirana. Though a small country, Albania has been visited by two Popes within two decades: Pope John Paul II in 1993 and Pope Francis in 2014. Pope Francis during his visit in Albania in 2014 said: “Peaceful coexistence of citizens belonging to different religions is a concretely viable path that produces harmony, and frees the best forces and the creativity of an entire people, transforming simple coexistence into true collaboration and brotherhood.”
What is the educational role of religious communities in promoting interfaith dialogue among young people in Albania?
Religious communities in Albania established a lot of schools and some universities.
Thousands of young people, regardless of religion, have graduated and studied in these schools. They are model citizens who work in different sectors inside and outside Albania. In addition to pre-university schools, there are also, three theological schools; Islamic, Orthodox and Catholic. From 2017 I am Head of the Department of Islamic Sciences at Bedër University, which was established in 2011 by the Muslim Community of Albania. In the collaboration with Catholic Theological Institute and the Academy of Orthodox Theology in Logos University, we organized many seminars, open lectures presented by the professors of the three theological schools, visits, and mutual meetings. Once every six months’ gatherings and symposia with common themes are being organized in one of the three, high-level theological schools. So far, nine inter-religious symposia on topics such as “Freedom of Religion and Interreligious Dialogue”, “Creation”, “Family in Islam and Christianity”, “Role of Women in Religious Communities”, “Divine Love”, “Prayer”, etc. have been held. In one of these symposia (2018), Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox students gathered with their professors, chose one representative of each religion, and prayed for peace, prosperity, more love for society and for each other to provide social well-being and happiness. Today churches and mosques have more young believers than they do in old age. This means that faith triumphed over denial.
Considering the country’s very accepting nature of multiple religions, what makes your scheme so different from any other?
You know Albania as a small country in Europe, but researchers of history and dialogue emphasize Albania as a model of interfaith coexistence for centuries. Albania is a country where the East and West are crossroad, Muslims and Christians are coexisting since hundreds of years.
The centuries-old tradition of coexistence has become part of national identity in Albania. The conversion over the centuries of Albanians from one faith to another did not make them enemies. Often in the same house, one brother was a Christian and the other a Muslim. There were times when the same place served as a place of prayer for Christians and a place of prayer for Muslims. This was not a mix of religion, but a natural coexistence. Of course, it has had its challenges, but thanks to the role of religious leaders, this coexistence has been strengthening to this day.
Religious leaders, schools and universities of religious communities in Albania value and promote interfaith dialogue, seeing it as a philosophy of faith, where man is valued, as the most valuable creature of God and the other is accepted as he is, without wanting to interfere in the faith his. Freedom of religion after almost 50 years of ban by the communist system is one of the fundamental human freedoms in the world. And this freedom Albanians have longed for decades. This probably makes the case of Albania in the world intertwined and with a rich history with many examples of the model of inter-religious harmony even more special.
Everyone should understand, as Albanian Muslims and Christians, that reality and destiny, not only for them but also for the entire world, from the beginning until its end, depend on the variety of beliefs and convictions. Albanians will not have religious divisions as long as they believe that multiple religions are not a disaster and that God Almighty is the same for all Muslims and Christians.
This tradition of religious tolerance among the Albanians is not a product of modern times; it is a tradition that comes from the past centuries. These values, though, are certainly not guaranteed eternally, but must be conserved and maintained inside the people’s inherited or acquired mentality. Consequently, this is the way interfaith coexistence and harmony have continued for years in Albania and have lasted until today through many hardships as a great national value of a small population. However, we have the obligation to protect, cultivate, and promote this value.
Small countries such as Albania can contribute through their values to enriching the global society, by creating a rich mosaic of values and cultures that recognize, respect, and develop each other. The country`s geostrategic position and the people`s multi-religious composition, makes us think of a historical destiny predetermined to help mold and mitigate the disagreements between the East and the West and to contribute to the synthesis of civilizations.
* Dr. Kruja is a lecturer in Sociology and Interfaith Dialogue at Bedër University in Tirana, where he also holds the administrative position of Head of the Department of Islamic Sciences. He studied Bachelor in Sociology, while Master and PhD in the field of Interreligious Dialogue. He is author of the book “Albanians in the face of the challenges of interfaith understanding” and many scientific articles in academic journals at home and abroad in the field of dialogue and education. After several duties in the Muslim Community of Albania, in the years 2010-2016, he was the Director of Culture and Interreligious Dialogue at KMSH and since 2012 he is the editor-in-chief of the Scientific Journal “Zani i Naltë”, founded in 1923.
From 2018, Dr. Genti Kruja has also been elected Secretary General of the Interfaith Council of Albania.
Interview is realized by Giorgia Lee from “Religions for Peace”.