A Blood Brotherhood
In a Pleasanton, Calif., backyard, the containers are piled up, waiting for overland transport to open up, across bloodstained borders. They are filled with clothing and other relief items, donated for the victims of brutal attacks carried out by the government of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, on Albanians in the Kosova district of southwest Yugoslavia.
In Kosova, 90 percent of the population is Albanian, and 80 percent of them are Muslims. For some observers it might seem strange that the aid materials waiting to be shipped from Pleasanton were mainly collected on the Jesuit campus of the University of San Francisco.
"The Jesuits at USF have really set a positive example for others in the Bay Area who care about the human rights of the Albanians in Kosova," said Zana Ibrani, an English teacher and former Kosova university professor who is storing the containers. "They showed they care regardless of whether the victims are believers or non-believers, Catholics or non-Catholics."
Of course, Catholics are typically out front in assisting the victims of war, ethnic oppression, and other social upheavals around the world. But there are few Albanians in Northern California -- perhaps no more than 200 in all -- and only a handful are Catholic.
Behind the USF relief drive there is, then, a story, or, better, a series of stories. It is best to outline some further regional background.
The majority of Albanians, on the territory of the Republic of Albania, as well as in the neighboring districts of Kosova, in Yugoslavia, and Ilirida, in Macedonia, are Muslims -- some 70 percent of the whole nation. Most Albanian Muslims are Sunni traditionalists, with, in southern Albania, a Shia minority associated with the Bektashi mystical order.
Twenty percent of Albanians, also mainly in Southern Albania, are Orthodox Christians, and 10 percent are Catholics. The latter are concentrated in Northern Albania and in Kosova.
But while they are a minority in the overall national community, Catholics have played an enormous role in the struggle to preserve Albanian culture and to educate the Albanian people.
Above all, Albanian Catholics struggled -- and were martyred -- in the defense of their faith against the Communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha and Ramiz Alia, which ruled Albania from 1944 to 1991. The Calvary of Christians in Albania, combined with the Macedonian-Albanian origin of Mother Teresa, made Albanian Catholics a special concern of Pope John Paul II.
"The Hoxha regime was the most extreme of all the Communist dictatorships in its attacks on religion," said Ray Frost, sacristan of St. Ignatius' Church. "Catholic intellectuals, bishops, and priests were executed, on trumped up charges of espionage at the beginning, later for such acts as conducting baptisms. Churches and other religious structures such as mosques were levelled or converted for secular use, and religious authors were banned, including some of the most important works of Albanian literature, written by Catholics and Muslims."
That Mr. Frost would be an expert on Catholics in Albania involves another story. In addition to his duties as sacristan of St. Ignatius' Church, he is also a leading figure in the Daniel Dajani, S.J., Albanian Catholic Institute, which is located on the USF campus.
And the story of that Institute is also the story of a true man of God: its founder, Gjon Sinishta, who died in 1995.
Mr. Sinishta was Mr. Frost's predecessor as sacristan at St. Ignatius. But more importantly, Gjon Sinishta worked single-handedly, after coming to the United States in the early 1960s, to record and publicize the fate of Albanian Catholics oppressed by Communism in both its Albanian and Yugoslav forms.
Born in Montenegro, Mr. Sinishta studied at Xavier College, in the North Albanian city of Shkoder, which had trained numerous priests and educators. But Mr. Sinishta was prevented from realizing his childhood desire to become a priest, by the arrival of Communist rule. Faced with the brutal repression of the church, Mr. Sinishta fled across the border into Yugoslavia.
He worked in that country's Albanian-language news media, but was ordered to join the Yugoslav Communist Party to keep his job. As a Catholic, he refused to renounce God for the immediate worldly benefits of a party membership card. He was imprisoned for several years, but after his release, during an amnesty, he escaped to Austria, then to Italy and finally the United States.
Mr. Sinishta was working in a Detroit auto factory, like thousands of other Albanian immigrants, when, in 1966, he established the Albanian Catholic Information Center. He published his first book, Sacrifice for Albania, documenting the cases of Catholic priests and educators imprisoned and killed by the Hoxhaites.
Mr. Sinishta then moved to California. He was first employed by the Santa Clara University as the Sacristan of the Mission Church, then came to USF, serving as St. Ignatius' sacristan until his retirement in 1995. He published a unique, classic account of religious persecution in Albania, "The Fulfilled Promise," in 1976; the volume was secretly translated into Albanian and circulated in typed, "samizdat" form under Communism.
In 1980 Mr. Sinishta founded the "Albanian Catholic Bulletin," which was published first at Santa Clara, and later, until 1994, at USF, by the Albanian Catholic Institute.
"Gjon left those of us who worked with him a precious legacy," Mr. Frost commented. "He called on us to continue his work, centering on the two concerns closest to his heart: rebuilding the love of God among Albanians, and defending the Albanian people against Serbian aggression."
Serbian aggression. The phrase brings one back to the present, and to reports of massacres, accompanied by ghastly photographs of dead and disfigured pregnant women, mothers, children, and elderly folk. They have appeared along with images of refugees, devastated homes and vandalized churches and mosques, in newspapers and on websites, since the outbreak of a second recent Balkan war in Kosova in March.
Some Albanian patriots claim that "war" is the wrong word. "You can't call it a war," said an Albanian-Sicilian San Francisco artist, who requested anonymity. "The Serbs invade the villages with tanks, running them up against houses in the middle of the night, while people are sleeping, and simply blowing them away. It's not a war, it's what Jewish people call a pogrom, a murderous assault aimed only at terrorizing the Albanians."
The defense of the Kosovar Albanians against Serbian aggression has also created new lines of contact between Catholics at USF and Albanian Muslims in the Bay Area.
Gjon Sinishta had inaugurated the celebration of an annual mass at USF for the Albanian martyrs, and the custom has continued in his memory, since his death. When the "Albanian mass" was held at the church in March of this year, more Albanians showed up than ever before -- close to 100 -- but only a few dozen came forward to take communion.
The rest were Muslims, or had been brought up under atheistic Communism. They looked around, wondering if they should, after all, accept communion; but not knowing the mysteries of the Christian faith, they held back. Still, it was a powerful moment, as the Church of Peter reached out to believers in the creed of Muhammad.
Such an approach contrasts with the superficial ecumenism practiced by so many "liberal" Catholics. Rather than group hug sessions, gimmicky mixing of scraps of the liturgies of different faiths, superficial appeals to "social justice," or attempts to replace faith with public policy, Gjon Sinishta preached mutual understanding between believers in spiritual combat against the fury of Communism.
He also imparted a lesson learned by three generations of Albanian patriots: the need for a global alliance between Catholics and Muslims against the Orthodox powers, Serbia and Greece, which have repeatedly sought to subdue and divide the Albanian lands. For 50 years, Orthodox imperialism was intertwined with Russian and Serbian Communism; today it appears as naked, genocidal ultranationalism.
Religious differences have never divided Albanians, which see themselves as a single "blood brotherhood." In a recent essay, titled "The Line of Theodosius Reappears," Albanian scholar Aurel Plasari underscored the relevance of Catholic-Muslim unity against Orthodox aggression. He described a history to which Gjon Sinishta, in his life and writings, often alluded: "When [Catholic priest] Dom Nikolle Kacorri stood by the side of Ismail Bey [Qemali] to demand the independence of the homeland, he did not calculate the percentages of the religions in Albania! When Father Anton Harapi [killed by the Communists] drafted the famous memorandum addressed to the great powers in 1918, he did not calculate that among the 44 signatures of the chiefs of Hoti and Gruda there were 40 Muslims and four Christians! When Monsignor Luigj Bumci [also killed by the Communists] fought for the borders of Albania at Versailles, he did not have percentages on his mind! When he fell on his knees in front of the Pope to rescue the provinces of Korce and Gjirokaster, he did not consider that there was not a single Catholic soul in these districts! When [Albanian patriots] Faik Konica, Fan Noli, or Gjergj Fishta strove for their country's recognition by the United States, I do not believe that they boasted to the American senators about the balance among the religions in Albania! When Monsignor [Jak] Serreqi wrote to the League of Nations that in Albania, which was in danger of being obliterated, Christians and Muslims are brothers and want to live in the same state, he did not base his argument on percentages!"
The need for a Catholic-Muslim alliance has recently been underscored, from the Islamic side, by the Mufti of Cyprus, Shaykh Nazim al-Haqqani, a leading figure in the Muslim world. Warning even before the Yugoslav war began that the Orthodox powers would attempt to destroy Balkan Muslim civilization with fire and sword, he has also counselled Muslim believers to look toward Catholics as the Christians best prepared to understand their situation.
This attitude reflects a much older and broader history of good relations between Catholics and the Ottoman rulers in the Balkans, which permitted the Franciscans to operate throughout Turkish-ruled Bosnia, in addition to Jesuit activities in Albania.
While much of this must seem obscure and confusing to San Francisco readers, that may change soon. Ray Frost and other collaborators of Gjon Sinishta are preparing a book-length collection of his papers on the Jesuit martyrdom in Albania, and a new "Albanian Catholic Newsletter" will begin coming out in September.
Meanwhile, in Mrs. Ibrani's back yard, the aid containers are still waiting for transportation to the war zone.
Related Topics: Albanian Muslims, Balkan Muslims, European Muslims, Kosovo, Muslim-Christian Relations receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free center for islamic pluralism mailing list
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