Albanian faiths blend together after hard times

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On an Albanian spring day, dozens of Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians toil together up a steep, winding slope to St Anthony’s Church — different faiths all hoping for a miracle. 

Albanian Muslims pray in 2008. On an Albanian spring day, dozens of Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians toil together up a steep, winding slope to St Anthony’s Church — different faiths all hoping for a miracle [Credit: AFP]

Some of the pilgrims heading up the stoney path to the imposing church are barefoot and wedge their feet into cracks in rocks believed to have powers, including protection against disease. 

Others collect five white stones along the way and, in accordance with tradition, whisper to each before placing it back on the ground. 

Ilir, a young Orthodox Christianity engineer, rubs his wallet on a rock, hoping for prosperity. “I have come to pray to God for my prayers to be granted this year,” he confides. 

Catholic mother-of-two Mir is praying St Antony will save her marriage. “I have problems with my husband,” murmurs the young lawyer. 

“I come to ask God to give me a son this year,” says Servete, a Muslim who has travelled to Lac, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of the capital Tirana, from Durres further west. 

On their slow march up the hill, the pilgrims pass a cave where legend says St Antony slept; some leave clothing belonging to their children or sick loved ones needing a cure. 

The popular weekly pilgrimage is testament to the survival in Albania of a strong religious faith despite efforts of the 1945-1990 communist dictatorship to mercilessly root it out. 

Repression and international isolation under the militantly atheistic regime, which banned all forms of religious expression, has today forged an original mix of faith, superstition, folk lore and tolerance. 

The majority of Albania’s population of almost three million is Muslim but there are strong Orthodox and Catholic minorities too. 

The different faiths tend to worship at the same places and people sometimes switch religions for convenience — which would shock many in less tolerant societies. 

Here, God is the “same for the Catholics, the Orthodox and the Muslims,” anthropologist Aferdita Onuzi told AFP. “All believe in a miracle that could change their life.” 

With the communist dictatorship banning all religious practices in the country, sociologist Artan Fuga said: “Believers who could not practise their faith freely went to look for the divine where they could find it … also using sacred places or objects from animist and pagan beliefs.” 

In an example, thousands of Albanians of all faiths come together each August on Tomorri mountain in the south of the country to honour both a pagan sun cult and the religious practices of an Islamic Sufi order, the Bektashi. 

“Common attendance by Muslims and Christians to the places of worship is a widespread phenomenon in Albania,” said Besnik Mustafaj of the non-government Forum of Alliance of Civilizations. 

Many Albanians “during their eventful history, switched from one religion to another, because of economic necessities or more simply for practical questions,” said Lira Caushi, professor at Tirana’s university. 

Albania was Christian when it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century and many of its people converted to Islam in order to get jobs in the Ottoman administration. 

In an example that persists today, Albanians who want to emigrate to neighbouring Greece, an EU member, try to change their identity to prove they belong to Albania’s Greek minority — and in the process convert to Orthodox Christianity. 

Marriages between Muslims and Christians are frequent and many Albanians are at loss to say which religion they practice. 

Confusing perhaps, but it also explains Albania’s religious tolerance, says prominent writer Ismail Kadare, a precious commodity in religiously fraught time. “Cohabitation between the religions is peaceful,” he says. 

This blending of religious practices, or syncretism, was strong in areas once ruled by the Ottoman Empire, like Albania, says British historian Mark Mazower in his book “The Balkans”. 

At the time, Christians collected “sacred earth” from around mosques or Muslim “tekkes”, or mausoleums. 

It is another tradition that survives today with Muslims and Christians praying together at a “tekke” in honour of dervish Hatixhe in Tirana at the start of every year. 

Author: Briseida Mema | Source: AFP News [April 11, 2011]

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