By Peter Tase
Religious Freedom in Albania
In the past century, religious freedom has been a key indicator of the state of democratic institutions in the Republic of Albania. What is the current situation in Albania? First, the State’s official position on religious freedom is normally reflected in the constitution. The legal and policy framework of Albania is favorable to religious freedom. While the current constitution provides for freedom of religion, there are other laws and policies that have contributed to the generally free practice of religion in Albania. The 2009 International Religious Freedom report issued by the US Department of State made the following declaration about religious freedom in Albania:
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion. The Government generally respected religious freedom in practice…The law at all levels protects this right in full against abuse, either by governmental or private actors. The Government is secular. According to the Constitution, there is no official religion and all religions are equal; however, the predominant religious communities (Sunni Muslim, Bektashi, Orthodox, and Catholic) enjoy a greater degree of official recognition (e.g., national holidays) and social status based on their historical presence in the country. Official holidays include holy days from all four predominant faiths.
The Hoxha Dictatorship: the darkest years in Albania’s history
The state of religious freedom in Albania today is totally different from the period during the Hoxha communist dictatorship. Enver Hoxha, soon after taking leadership of the Democratic Front in 1945, instituted drastic changes. Under the August 1945 Agrarian Reform Law, Albania’s arable land was redistributed to put an end to large land ownerships and to increase farm output. Properties of religious institutions were among those nationalized, and the holdings of monasteries, religious orders, dioceses and the like were limited to 20 hectares. Many of the clergy and religious followers were tortured and executed. In 1946, all foreign Roman Catholic clergy were expelled—a crippling blow for the numerous Catholic schools and welfare institutions in the country.
The policy of the Hoxha dictatorship stems from Hoxha’s own views about religion. He was violently anti-religious, and his announced goal was to make Albania an atheist state. It is for this reason that the communist period in Albania was more severe for the country’s religious institutions than most of the other eastern European and Balkan communist countries. The anti-religious period of the Hoxha dictatorship reached a high point with the 1976 Constitution. Article 55 banned “fascist, anti-democratic, religious, war-mongering, and anti-socialist activities and propaganda…as well as the incitement of national and racial hatred.” The Hoxha nightmare, which did eventually end, was an anomaly in Albanian life. In previous periods as far back as the 19th century, Albania was known as a land of tolerance. While the 19th and early 20th centuries saw the Muslim noble class as the ruling elite of Albania, these periods were characterized by tolerance for other religious groups. Even after five centuries of Ottoman rule, under which 70 percent of the Albanian population converted to Islam, there was still tolerance of other faiths and beliefs. The various Albanian constitutions before the Hoxha dictatorship all declared that Albania had no official religion, indicated that religions were respected and stated that all Albanians had the right to choose their religious preference or to eschew religious affiliation if they wished. These were the true feelings of the Albanian people, and these feelings and beliefs—along with religious pragmatism—were an intrinsic part of Albanian culture.
The Situation in Albania Today
Once the brutal dictatorship of Enver Hoxha ended, Albania returned to its long, solid tradition of religious tolerance. Today, religious institutions play a major role in the field of education. Prime Minister Edi Rama has been head of the government since September 2013 and a key figure in Albanian political life since the fall of the communist government. He has been a steady and reliable friend of the United States and South East Asian major economies. In my conversations with Mr. Edi Rama, it is evident that he is sensitive to the Albanian tradition of religious freedom and tolerance. Schools The Ministry of Education in Albania affirms that public schools are secular, and that ideological and religious indoctrination in public schools is prohibited by law. Of the more than 100 educational institutions affiliated with associations or foundations, 15 are religiously-affiliated. By law the religiously-affiliated schools must be licensed by the Ministry of Education, and curricula are required to comply with national education standards. Numerous state-licensed schools are overseen by Catholic and Muslim groups, which have not had any problems in obtaining licenses for new schools. The strong cultural factor of tolerance is present in the school system of Albania.
Albania and Kosovo
Albania is also setting a very good example for Kosovo, its recently independent neighbor. The challenge in Kosovo for religious freedom may be even greater because of the background of alienation between the Albanian and Serb communities. The Albanian leadership has been a significant force in promoting tolerance in neighboring Kosovo, another predominately Islamic nation.
“The Religion of Albania is Albanianism”
In light of current US policy that calls for the deepening of the dialogue with predominantly Muslim countries, it is fortunate that on the shores of the Adriatic, within the heart of Europe, there is a country where 70 percent of the people subscribe to the Islamic faith and the two predominant Christian faiths—Orthodox Christian and Roman Catholic, constituting 20 and 10 percent of the population respectively—have total freedom. It is also a fact that this is not a recent phenomenon, but as Pashko Vasa, a XIX century Albanian intellectual, independence movement leader and writer, said, “The religion of Albania is Albanianism.” This historic and intrinsic aspect of the Albanian culture serves as an example of religious freedom for other predominantly Muslim countries. It is a major reason for the positive bilateral relationship between the United States and Albania.
In my multiple visits to Albania over the past decades, and during my childhood years, the main cultural characteristic that has always been apparent in this religiously pluralistic state is tolerance. Albanians of the three major religions live in harmony with each other. Pope John Paul II visited Albania on April 25, 1993, and consideration is being given to the establishment of a Catholic university in Albania. As the world community enters the second decade of the third millennium, Albania receives high marks for its commitment to religious freedom and tolerance.
Tolerance is part of the Albanian heritage. The Hoxha dictatorship was a cruel exception. The transition from extreme communist dictatorship in the late 1980s and early 1990s to democracy was difficult, but now democratic traditions have been re-established. With the end of Hoxha’s dictatorship, the Albanian tradition of tolerance soon reemerged as an important factor in the civic and cultural life of the country. Albania shows that religious freedom and Islamic values not only can co-exist, but also can flourish together.
Albania: A New Beginning
Albania’s new Prime Minister Edi Rama, is determined to eliminate corruption in his country and gain the respect of the international community. He realized that the international community was concerned about a persistent corruption; illegal drug smuggling and human trafficking that have plagued Albania since the end of almost 50 years of Communist rule. The Communist government of Enver Hoxha was regarded as the most extreme Communist government in the Post-World War II period. The legacy of the past is a major handicap for Albania. The post-Communist government was faced with the reality that Albania, for centuries, was one of the poorest countries in Europe.
In the elections of 2013, the Socialist Party of Albania led by Edi Rama campaigned for significant change: reducing corruption and crime, while downsizing the government. His campaign focused on the theme that life should and could be improved. International observers declared the elections to be free and the best elections held so far in the history of democracy in Albania. The current government of Albania has one of the highest numbers of women as members of the cabinet of ministers.
After almost two years in office, there are signs of a “new beginning” in Albania. One such signal is the high caliber of senior officials that are serving in the new government. A good example is Ditmir Bushati, a former Chairman of the Committee on European Integration in the National Assembly of Albania. I met with him in Tirana last year. There is no question about his competence in international affairs. His main focus now is to achieve Albania’s goal of becoming a member of the European Union and fully integrated into the European Institutions as well as Strengthen Tirana’s relations with the countries of the Caspian region, particularly with the Republic of Azerbaijan, Republic of Turkey and People’s Republic of China.
In 2006 I have also met with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Albania, Former Ambassador to Portugal and France, Mr. Besnik Mustafaj, shortly after the United States government announced on April 2, 2006, that it had awarded a $13.85 million grant to Albania. The grant would fund a program to reduce corruption through reforms in tax administration, public procurement and business registration. In doing this, the US government indicated that the previous government of Sali Berisha is serious about tackling corruption. On the occasion of this official visit, I had the honor to accompany the Albanian Foreign Minister in his official meetings with Congressman Tom Lantos and Congressman Earl Pomeroy in the US House of Representatives. Later on Mr. Mustafaj was warmly welcomed by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who was a former Speech writer and Assistant Press Secretary in the Presidential Campaigns of Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1980. Mr. Rohrabacher announced the presence of Mr. Mustafaj in Washington, during a special hearing session with Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Rayburn House Office Building.
However, the Minister at that time was quite open with me in discussing the challenge of reducing corruption since it is closely tied to nepotism. Granting preference to one’s relations is not unique to Albania. But the countries of Europe and North America, for the most part, have been able to modify this cultural tradition. The current Edi Rama Government is perceived positively by the international community and is receiving tremendous assistance by United States, Germany, Austria, Italy and other influential countries of European Union.
Situated in southeastern Europe, about the size of Maryland, Albania is at the edge of the West Balkans. Approximately 3.5 million people are of Albanian ethnic background. The Greek population numbers three to five percent. There is greater diversity in religion; Muslims constitute around 70 percent of the population, Albanian Orthodox is 20 percent and Roman Catholics number around ten percent.
History has had a significant impact on contemporary Albania. In some ways, Albania was looked upon negatively by the Western European establishment. This negative image was aggravated by the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, regarded by many as the most brutal of the post-World War II dictators.
Albania has never received credit in the post-Communist era for its commitment and practice of religious freedom. This is most likely rooted in the pre-Communist period of Albania. The culture of this predominantly Muslim country was always tolerant of other religions. The only non-tolerant period before the Communist era was during World War II when Albania was occupied by the Axis fascists.
An anti-Albanian bias still exists. The cultural divide between the Albanian-Muslim culture and Western Europe resulted in various cultural images that did not (and still do not) favor the Albanians.
But this attitude is changing. The increased pressure of the United States—through diplomacy, the US Agency for International Development and the U.S. Peace Corps—and Albania’s growing rapport with Croatia and Macedonia through the Adriatic Charter are all indications of a changing attitude.
The strong support that Albania gave to neighboring Montenegro as it moved toward independence is also a good sign that a relationship based on mutual respect is developing. In my discussions with leaders from Croatia and Montenegro, it was very apparent that they wanted strong bilateral ties with Albania.
The Edi Rama government faces many challenges. In more than twenty five years after the end of Communist dictatorship, Albania has gone through several difficult periods of adjustment. The core challenges remain: unemployment, a crime network that, in some instances, is interwoven with cultural traditions and a lack of unity on the resolution of core problems.
The “breath of fresh air” from Edi Rama and his government is generating new enthusiasm for Albanians to push their country to a new level. However, the opposition seems unable to recognize that there are key national issues that should be addressed by working together with the government. The goal should be a bipartisan approach to finding solutions for the significant core challenges of Albania.
This is an area of interest where Western European, Indonesian and South East Asian Advisors could assist. In the United States, one speaks of bipartisan support. This occurs on issues of national interest that merit bipartisan support.
Albania needs assistance to establish a tradition wherein all political parties agree to work together and come to consensus on solutions. Albania cannot afford excessive internal bickering.
There is no question that Albania has had a rocky transition from Communism to democracy. From 1992-2015, there have been six governments. Substantial progress is being made to elevate Albania to the next level, i.e. a democracy that offers its people hope for the future.
Edi Rama, the Prime Minister, is completing his first two years as the head of government. He has selected leaders with very good reputations to work with him.
The United States and the European countries should assist Albania, a genuine example of such support is the one demonstrated by Austria, to identify other assets which can help to transform the country to a new level of prosperity.
The Western community, having ignored Albania for so many decades, should reject its past policies, which never recognized the potential of this country on the Adriatic.
Given the “new beginning” of Prime Minister Rama, the time is ripe for the West to cooperate with Albania to transform the country into a land of opportunity.
- “A stable ecumenical model? How religion might become a political issue in Albania” Tonin Gjuraj. East European Quarterly. 34. 1 (Spring 2000): 21-49.
- A stable ecumenical model? How religion might become a political issue in Albania. Tonin Gjuraj. East European Quarterly;34. 1
- Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, United States Department of State. “International Religious Freedom Report,” 2009.
- Percentages are based on estimates as provided in the World Factbook, 2010.