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Albania: The Land of Eagles and Religious Freedom
Mikhail Bell September 7, 2012
In late July, the U.S. State Department published its latest assessment of religious freedom’s status around the world. Traditionally IRD has focused our reportage on East Asia and Africa. But this year’s list, released on July 30, covered a small country with a long history: Albania.
The annual report is mandated by law under the International Religious Freedom Act. The focus on the right to religious freedom is also in keeping with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly Article 18, which states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Known as the Land of Eagles, or Shqiperia, as it is called in the national tongue, Albania is full of history and mystery. Enver Hoxha, the country’s long-time Communist dictator, formally banned religion in 1967, nearly three decades after the country conducted its last census that explicitly included religion.
Albania’s exit from communism was only the beginning of its life in a brave new world as a fledgling democracy. Allegations of corruption among former Communist Party leaders resulted in the arrest of the nation’s first post-Cold War leader Ramiz Alia in 1994. Three years later a massive pyramid scheme crippled Albania as party leaders were chased out of the country and the government dissolved into a shadow of its former self. Yet Albania rebuilt itself from the ashes of chaos in the early years of this century.
External sources often rightly express concern about endemic corruption. While most people I spoke with during my nearly three months in Albania stay bemoaned its existence, few possessed a genuine interest in establishing a new normal.
The two main religions in Albania are Christianity and Islam, with Catholic and Orthodox believers comprising the first group. The Muslim population includes Sunni and Shia. More recently, I was surprised to hear about Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormon evangelists residing in Tirana. This, I was told, is has become normal.
Given the nation’s history, it is not surprising at all. Albania formally banned religion from 1967 until 1991. Its affirmation of religious freedom was one of many ostensibly modern steps the nation took as a transitioning democracy in the early 1990s. The change is the latest of many pendulum swings that are so much a part of Albania’s history. According to the CIA World Factbook, Albania’s religious affiliations are Muslim (70%), Albanian Orthodox (20%), and Catholic (10%). While Campus Crusade made evangelical inroads the 1990s, more charismatic forms of belief have not reached a tipping point in their appeal to most Albanians. There are signs of a potential shift in the Protestant alliance known as the Evangelical Brotherhood of Albania.
The nation was part of Greece, Italy, Czech Republic and Ottoman Empire during its more than three millennia existence. Tirana, the capital, was founded in 1614, just seven years after Jamestown in America. It went on flourish as Albania’s seat of government and commerce. CIA data places the capital’s current population at nearly 450,000 people. Greater economic opportunities account for the rapid urbanization.
In 1912, the same year the Titanic sank, Albania adopted its modern borders and announced its independence. In 2012, the country seems to be finding its way as a culture that respects religious differences and doesn’t typically abuse them for political gain. In this sense, unlike Sudan, Egypt, or Syria, Albania is a trailblazer. Undoubtedly the confluence of history and culture have shaped laissez faire attitudes about religion. What is remarkable is the ease with which people from different religious backgrounds communicate in Albania with little apprehension.
The one thing that may change this is increasing attempts to share religious beliefs by those with a strong sense of religious identity. But Albania’s history seems to make religious strife unlikely. In some ways, the Land of the Eagles could teach other nations, such as Pakistan, that have taken a hardline on banning religious minority expression. Since Shqiperia emerged from the fog of government-imposed atheism, this author saw firsthand how it has soared to new heights as a country that respects religious freedom. Instead of sweeping religion into the dustbin of history, faith is acknowledged a lubricant of personal development, which if allowed to flourish, can benefit society.
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