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Christians in the Muslim World

Kosovo, the Unknown Face of Euro-Islam

A journey in the tiny Balkan province where a very large majority of Muslims live together with a 'small remnant' of Orthodox Christians. Apparently in peace, after years of regional wars and very severe conflicts. But despite the seventeen-thousand NATO soldiers present to defend the situation, for many people this is not only a matter of appearances.

As children when they went to the attic to rummage amongst the dusty treasures of their home they found the crucifix of their grandfather or great grandfather. When they had grown up, as Muslim adults in today's Kosovo, a region with a large Muslim majority (90% of the population declares itself Muslim), they wanted to build a Catholic church in their home village. With its bricks and façade in local stone, 1,600 metres high, and inaugurated by a festive people on a stormy day in September 2005, the church points proudly to that piece of sky that is between the mountains of the valley of the river Rugova, which is twenty minutes by car from the town of Pec Peja, the last check-point of the Kfor before the border with Montenegro.

 

Almost unreachable in winter, looked after between April and September by solitary shepherds between the tumble-down houses of Albanian mountain folk, this church is there, in silence, to suggest some feature of Islam in Kosovo, but above all else to provoke questions: whose were the hands who put brick upon brick? Why did they want this church? How does official Islam of Pristina see this church? Is it not a provocation for what is still a protectorate of the United Nations and where since 1999 peace has been kept by over 17,000 NATO soldiers?

 

This small church is no isolated example: in April 2006 another church was opened in Malisheva in the presence of thousands of people, and a third is currently being built in Viti. To these will soon be added a real cathedral: they laid its first stone in the centre of Pristina in August 2005 with the President, Ibrahim Rugova, and the Bishop, Mark Sopi, both of whom died a few days from each other in January 2006.

 

'To provide a reply to our grandparents, almost to provide them with reparations for a conversion that was imposed upon them so that they could do the shopping when they went down to the town. This was why we wanted to build a church, and in the end we were successful'. Tahir Lajqi, a forty-eight year old lawyer, who is unemployed today like 55% of the population, and the father of three children, thus explains why he was involved with the committee of citizens of Peja in the building of the church. Lajqi, who in front of a smoking dish of spicy cevapa that have just been grilled, defines himself as 'Muslim in name, Christian in my heart', has, however, never thought of converting to Catholicism, satisfied as he is with his own sort of personal religion: 'I, and many friends, I could say all of my friends', says Lajqi, ' never set foot in a mosque, instead we go to church at Easter and Christmas. What matters is what you feel inside: my children and I feel that we are Christians, but we remain Muslims'.

 

Is this why they wanted this church? As a kind of rediscovery of the Catholicism that they carry in their hearts? This is not exactly how Nexhemedin Hoxhaj, the imam of Pec Peja, sees it. Pec Peja had 20,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the nineteenth century and twenty mosques; it now has ten mosques (of which two were made unusable by the fires of 1999) for today's 150,000 inhabitants. 'On Fridays', declares the imam with an acute look in his blue eyes, 'our mosques are full, and even if the percentage of those who attend regularly is low who can judge how and how often a person prays? The building of the church in the mountains does not take anything away from the Muslim faith of our town. Indeed, it demonstrates the toleration that has always existed here between the followers of the different religions'.

 

If there is a wish and an expressed need for a place of prayer, for this imam no argument exists against the building of a church. Quite the contrary, But first and foremost there must be the faithful, he emphasises almost in a sarcastic way. For Hoxhaj, one should be careful about building places of worship for political reasons, 'Personally', he explains, 'at the beginning I was afraid that the church at Rugova was the outcome of pseudo-patriotic intentions, that people wanted it in order to please Europe, to show Europe a more Catholic Christian face of Kosovo. But then we decided to let the matter rest and not to attribute to this act the character of a provocation'.

 

Indeed, the building of 'political' buildings would not be something new in these parts. In the 1990s the Serbs built various Orthodox churches in Kosovo, indeed at least four in the region of Dukajini, in order to recall, indeed to point out, that they had always been there. 'But there is no need for a church', Hoxhaj explains in a convinced way, 'to demonstrate the nearness of our land to Europe. We are European Muslims and we are certainly pro-European. There is no need to become Catholics. The world does not ask us to become Christians; it asks us not to violate human rights. And here human rights are respected. We feel that we are European citizens quite apart from the religion that we freely practice'.

 

 

Looking to Europe

 

There is Europe, the shore towards which is directed every conversation about this piece of Balkan land, which the Serbs call Kosovo i Metohija, the land of churches: eleven thousand square kilometres squeezed between Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia, with a population of about two million people with an ethnic composition that has still to be ascertained. It is presumed that over 90% of the population is Albanian, 3% Serb, and 1% Muslim Slav, known as 'Bosniakans', as well as other gypsy and Turkish minorities. But the data are very uncertain because the last census was carried out in 1981, that is to say some twenty-five years ago, not very many on the calendar but an eternity for the mass of events and transformations that have taken place as regards the contours of the borders and the events of every family that lives here.

 

The Muslim community of Kosovo, which is based in the centre of Pristina, also looks to Europe. From the little church up above in Rugova as far as the heart of Islam in the capital is about three hours' journey by car. The road, one of the four main roads that cross the region, with its zigzags between massive holes in the asphalt, the passing and overtaking of lorries, carts full of peasants drawn by tired horses, proud jeeps of the armies of the world, and bends and inclines one after the other, is a tape of the contemporary reality of Kosovo: large green cultivated fields; various shops bordering on the roadside, for example the fruit and vegetable sellers with their tomatoes at one euro a kilo for people whose average salary is 220 euros a month; bright petrol pumps that attempt to engage in a trade which until a few years ago was risky; and many, very many, boys and girls out walking around, a real resource for a population 65% of which is made up of people between the ages of twenty and thirty-five.

 

But above all there are the very many houses by the roadside which are redbrick in colour. They affect the surroundings. They are red because they have still not yet been plastered plaster costs too much. The owners put them up as soon as they could, in part with the international aid provided after the last war, and as soon as they could they went to live in them. Later, when they manage to save the money that is needed they will complete them and the face of the villages and towns will change colour once again. But at the present time this is the face of Kosovo: work in progress, an upturn, an arduous and still not defined reconstruction. Behind every door, in every street, there is a history which grips you because it brings with it all of the complexity of this region and makes it impossible to decide who is right and who is wrong.

 

International talks were begun in Vienna at the beginning of 2006 and these should lead to the establishment of a new status for this region, but an agreement has still not been reached with the Albanians, who aim at independence from Serbia, or with the Serbs, who do not want to lose their 'cradle', or with the international community which, in turn, is divided by different interests.

 

'Europe should not fear our Islam', declare in unison Resul Rexhepi, Sabri Bajgora and Qemajl Morina, three of the leaders of the Muslim community of Kosovo, 'Islam is the same throughout the world, it is based upon the same pillars, but it has specific characteristics linked to the history and tradition of each region. And ours is a history of mutual acceptance and peaceful co-existence between religions. Our Islam is a liberal Islam'. The conflicts that have bloodied Kosovo were not of a religious character. They were of an ethnic nature, they make clear. It has specifically been the rooted awareness of the Albanians that they belong to the same ethnic group that has relegated the question of religious differences to a secondary level and has been a guarantee of a kind of 'fraternal' mutual tolerance.

 

Here in Kosovo, they explain in Pristina, the Muslim faith is lived in a way that is very different to Saudi Arabia. One need only look at the women: here they are not obliged to wear the veil, they can drive cars and go out alone, and they have the same rights as men. In Saudi Arabia such is not the case. Or one need only consider how the cases of conversion from Islam to Christianity are treated: 'Each person must be free to choose the faith that they wish to profess', observes Bajgora, ' because as the Koran says there is no violence in the faith. Each person is responsible to God. We do not have the right to impose Islam by violence'.

 

The meaning of the Koran, explains Bajgora, is multidimensional; there are other sources that supplement it and thus help us to reach a more accurate interpretation.

 

It is certainly the case, they admit, that there is the risk of negative moves towards forms of extremism, but this can be avoided through a valid education of the young generations, such as that promoted by the Muslim community in its educational structures: the faculty of Islamic students, which since its inception in 1992 to the present day has given degrees to four hundred students, and the professional high school

 

Medressah Alkauddin, which in fifty years of activity has educated over 1,100 students. The teachers, they assure us, all come from the Kosovo. Bajgora, Rexhepi and Morina, who went to universities in the Sudan and Egypt, speak Arabic, and also look to Al Jazeera, are convinced that if a young person is well educated he or she cannot be deviated towards forms of violent fundamentalism. For this reason as well they think that it is important to insert religious instruction into schools in Kosovo only a deep knowledge of religions can guarantee respect for them.

 

'A few weeks ago', Morina relates, 'there was a symposium in Jordan and I made it very clear that we need a rebirth of Islam and that this cannot come from the Middle East but should come from us, from the heart of Europe'. They feel that they are fully European because they see themselves as belonging to those actors who led Europe to be what it is today and they see themselves, fully and correctly, as Muslims. Without fractures. And without that disquiet that it is at times expressed by Muslims who live in countries that belong to the European Union, even second and third generation Muslims, who seem to encounter difficulty in reconciling the fact that they are citizens of Europe and at the same time followers of Islam, almost as though these were two irreconcilable identities. From here, from Pristina, the Muslim community seems to say to Europe: look at us, look at our Islam, at our model of co-existence between different faiths this works.

 

 

Look at Our History

 

A history that acquires tones of varying degrees of violence depending on who narrates it and the epochs dealt with and which in Pristina is narrated in the following way. The first traces of Islam in Kosovo are said to go back to before the arrival of the Ottomans, in the wake of the sufi traders and missionaries who travelled in those areas. Later, between the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries, it is said that a more large-scale spread of Islam took place, which, at least until the Ottomans attempted to make the Albanians 'Turkish', is said not to have been violent but to have occurred because of the economic and social privileges, benefits and authoritative jobs in the civil service, politics and the army, that the Muslim rulers granted to citizens who converted to Islam. The gradual conversion to Islam of the peoples of the region, who had been Christian since the age of the Apostles, is said also to have been fostered by the desire to rid themselves of the religion of the Serbs, who were Orthodox Christians and were known for very heavy acts of violence that had been perpetrated as early as the twelfth century on the Albanians, and by the absence of charismatic Christian leaders such as the great hero Gjergj Kastrioti Skenderberg who had proudly fought to defend the Christians against Ottoman expansionism and who died courageously in 1468.

 

However, the approach to this history of the Balkan expert Xavier Bourgarel of the National Research Council of Paris is very different. Bourgarel has demonstrated that 'to speak about Balkan history as a model of 'peaceful co-existence' involves opposing a simplistic thesis, that of the myth of 'ancestral hatred', against another thesis which is equally simplistic, that of the myth of 'centuries-old tolerance'. 'Ottoman society', Bougarel has demonstrated in his studies, ''was strongly compartmentalised and made hierarchical along religious lines' and the Balkans have undergone various episodes of violence, in particular, but not only, since the rise of nationalism during the nineteenth century.

 

However there remains the fact that in Kosovo the Muslim community, specifically because of its history, openly and freely declares itself to be 'European'. 'The present approach of the Muslim community of Kosovo is in fact open and liberal': this phrase is striking, especially when uttered by an Orthodox Serb such as Father Sava Janijc, of the monastery of Deçani, in Pec Peja, an intensity of silence for about thirty monks in a forest that is very green in spring but frozen in winter, where the monks hand down the patient and ancient art of icons and are very well informed, through Internet, about the world outside, from which they have been protected since 1999 by an outpost of Italian Soldiers of the Kfor. 'As long as there is this kind leadership for Islam in this province', observes Father Janijc, the cybermonk as they call him on the Net, who has a site on Internet on his monastery and the persecutions endured by the Serbs in Kosovo', 'one can engage in dialogue'.

 

Dialogue: the first time that the religious heads of Kosovo officially met each other, in front of the television cameras of the world, to call for the path of dialogue and peace, was in 1999, a few hours before the NATO bombings. Despite this early failure they did not give up and after the war they started meeting each other again in 2000 and in 2001. It appeared that an unstoppable movement involving an overcoming of mutual suspicions had been set in motion. Until, that is, March 2004: the death of three Albanian children at the hands of Serbs in Mitrovica provoked a terrible violent reaction on the part of the Albanians, who, outside the control of the Kfor, destroyed a number of Orthodox churches.

 

But even after those ashes the desire for dialogue was not buried and after years of interruption it was reactivated and led to a joint appeal by the highest Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical, Muslim and Jewish religious authorities. This was declared in the Serb Patriarchate of Pec in the early days of last May. In front of the international community they employed heavy words: 'we are invited by our faith to live with others, indeed, even more, we pray to be able to live for others. In doing this we respect the dignity of every person and every community by accepting the principle of unity in diversity'. They committed themselves to promoting an improvement in life so as to facilitate the process of return of those people who after the war had left Kosovo, which, indeed, they called 'our shared home'.

 

For Father Sava the problem is that this Islam, which is able to sit at the side of Christians and Jews and sign such declarations, today runs the risk of changing its character. This monk is referring to certain confidential sources (the visits of military men and diplomats to the monastery are very frequent) which point to the danger that first and foremost in the rural areas of Kosovo, the poorest and most isolated areas of the country, a Wahabite Islam, which has nothing to do with the tradition of Kosovo, could make a breach and become rooted.

 

Father Sava thus identifies, from certain points of view, with the detailed analysis of this danger that is outlined by Isa Blumi, a researcher at the New York University at the Kipred, the Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development. Blumi observes that in Kosovo Islam, precisely because of its origins and the links to the preaching of Sufi missionaries during the Medieval period, has always had a particularly open character and has been able to build bridges and engage in exchange with Christians.

 

This kind of tolerant Islam, which is also tolerant towards Catholics, was fought by the government of Yugoslavia, above all else from the 1950s onwards, not least through the creation of an official centralised Islamic Community, which in trying to impose 'orthodox' Islam sought to homogenise the cultural aspect of the Federation, a mosaic which in itself was very complex, not least by fostering forms of strong antagonism with Christians. All this had the goal of repressing what the local and independence-seeking identity of Kosovo drew breath from, namely its Islam of a modern matrix. In the 1950s even mosques, schools and 'unregistered' houses were closed because it was held that they were not orthodox. This action of control by Belgrade, in Blumi's view, was not, however, able to penetrate the rural areas in an effective way. These areas, therefore, maintained themselves as the last bastions of the original Islam of Kosovo until the 1990s. It was specifically these areas that in the first years of this century became a land of mission for the humanitarian agencies of Saudi Arabia, which presented themselves under the umbrella of the 'Saudi Joint Committee for the Relief of Kosovo and Chechnya'.

 

Because of a kind of neglect or a scarce recognition of the real value of the traditions and the identity of these rural areas, the international community thus allowed Islamic international agencies to intervene on a massive scale in these poor and rural villages, with the rebuilding of schools and mosques, the provision of food to people, and thus the acquisition of a large number of followers and new adherents to an imported Islam of a Wahabite kind. Ironically, argues Blumi, it was precisely the Western countries who fear the spread of radical Islam that favoured its diffusion in these areas because they did not pay sufficient attention to those places where the original tolerant and open Islam had survived attempts to eliminate it. Blum goes even further: here there could take place what happened to the Afghans who fled to Pakistan in the 1980s a kind of 'Talibanisation' of the Muslim Albanian population of Kosovo. In the opinion of Father Sava one need only look at what has happened in Bosnia, his homeland: Saudi petro-dollars, which reached that land when it had experienced a war and was in a state of extreme poverty, changed the character of the local Islam.

 

Some signals, however rare they may, can be seen here as well: one can see girls with veils, something that before 1999 was not to be encountered in this region, and sometimes young men disappear for a period and after a little while come back with long beards wearing traditional Arab dress.

 

It remains to us to ask if there is a barrier to this movement from abroad which is crossing the frontiers of a Kosovo which still does not exist on the identity card of those people who live here. For the Kosovars perhaps the barrier is to be found there, when one digs into what keeps this people united despite everything: the pride of being the sons and daughters of this land, which has witnessed the building of Catholic churches and mosques a few yards from each other ever since the Medieval period, churches and mosques which down the centuries have remained open and mutually respected and defended. At least, that is, until the violence connected with the plans for ethnic cleansing were unleashed. Here we are dealing with the same passion that President Rugova, 'the Ghandi of the Balkans', expressed when he gave his guests a piece of precious mineral stolen from the mines in the mountains. He gave them a piece of Kosovo.

 

 

Reconciliation and Charity

 

Although it is true that here in every home weapons are still hidden because the chaos could break out again unexpectedly, the great efforts of mutual solidarity are still fresh in people's minds. Don Lush Gjergji, who is still moved, refers to the 1980s. Vicar General of a diocese that has over sixty thousand Catholics, a protagonist of that period, and a figure who was against the policy of 'Serbianisation' promoted by Milosevic, he recalls that the people were mobilised on a number of fronts. Encouraged by a Catholic, Anton Cetta, by a central council, and supported by various town councils, a real and authentic process of forgiveness was launched which led over 1,270 families to become reconciled and to go beyond the principle of the customary law of Leke Dukajini, for whom 'blood is never lost or forgiven'. Don Lush recalls that 'half a million people on the first of May celebrated this forgiveness in the meadows, in the churches, in the mosques, and in people's homes'. In those years was also established the Humanitarian Association of Kosovo 'Mother Teresa of Calcutta', and this association saved the population from hunger by creating a network together with Caritas, the NGOS of the world and fellow nationals abroad. A parallel school system was also created in order to keep alive the teaching of the Albanian language this had been forbidden by the government in Belgrade. This is a language of Indo-European origins which, in the view of Milazim Krasniqi, a poet and scholar who in the 1980s founded the League of Writers of Kosovo with Rugova, is 'the treasure' of the people, has an extraordinary power of expression, and is essential in providing an explanation of the ancient history of the Balkans and some myths of the Mediterranean. Indeed, it is said to be of use in understanding certain mysterious verses to be found in Homer.

 

For the inhabitants of this troubled land the pathway by which to achieve the containing of extreme movements is to be found here, in a tradition which it is difficult to decipher but which should be safeguarded, a tradition which led the inhabitants of Kosovo, who today call for an independent state, to fill the streets and squares in joyous fashion at the beginning of the new millennium in order to inaugurate as their national monument a stature of Skendelberg on a horse, the Catholic leader who fought against the Turks, always in defence and never in attack, with the courageous battle cry: 'a single branch breaks; a bundle of branches tied together never does'. That tradition which led Rexhep Boja, as the Mufti of Kosovo, to declare: 'the Albanians have been Muslims for more than five hundred years and have no need of outsiders to teach them the real pathway of Islam'.

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