Catholic Revival in Kosovo?
by Stephen Schwartz
They came in thousands, in crowds and in single file, over the mountains, through forests and across rivers. Some were wounded and covered with blood. Some were grieving the loss of relatives killed by Serbian terrorists or were silent with worry over kidnapped menfolk. Some were so old they had seen, or experienced, such expulsions at least once, and sometimes more, in their lives.
They were Albanians from Kosovo, on the move during the recent war. Muslims and Catholics (the latter typically ignored by global media), ordinary believers and mystics, they trudged through the snow to what they believed would be safety. If not real security, at least they would find a temporary haven, far from burning houses and holy places, bullets, and bombs.
Their numbers reached nearly a million as they filled up camps in the muddy fields of northern Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro. Alongside the Albanians, Slavic Muslims from the south Serbian region of Sandzhak, connecting Bosnia and Kosovo, fled to Sarajevo.
Settled in the camps, they sought medical help from volunteer teams assembled by Doctors Without Borders and similar groups. Truckloads of clothing and toys, giant containers of food, tents and blankets were shipped to alleviate misery. Families registered the names of missing members and listened, as communications were delivered. Once the tents were up, recruiters from the Kosova Liberation Army began circulating, collecting the names of those willing to undergo training for a trip back home. Media stars showed up for brief visits.
For refugees huddled across the borders from Kosovo, however, there was little in spiritual relief. Catholic Charities concentrated on getting through obstacles to assist and relocating families, and Islamic relief groups worked to improve medical aid. But ordinary priests who would have said Mass for Catholics (at least 15 percent of the Kosovar population), were largely absent, as were village imams and Bektashi (Shia Muslim) babas.
Nevertheless, the camps saw a new feature of life in the post-Communist world: Protestant and Islamic-sectarian missionaries.
Missionaries from abroad are nothing new to Albania; the new mosque in Kukës and several others had been built with money supplied by Muslim fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia. Although the Albanian form of Islam is so tolerant that adherents are stigmatized as non-believers, the Albanians were glad to have the new mosques.
But "converting" ordinary Albanian Muslims and Catholics into sectarian fanatics is no minor challenge. Albanians of five denominations -- Sunni Muslims, Bektashi mystics, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Jews -- lived in harmony, including frequent intermarriage, over half a millennium. For them, religious distinctions are non-existent, for as the Albanian patriot Pashko Vasa put it, and as every Albanian today proudly emphasizes, "the religion of the Albanian is Albanianism."
A media expert in Sarajevo, Drazena Peranic, a Croatian Catholic woman married to a Bosnian Muslim, might have been expected to consider religious distinctions within a family to be secondary. But even she expressed amazement at the open-minded attitude of her Albanian colleagues. One editor, she noted, a Muslim married to a Christian Orthodox woman, was in Italy when his wife gave birth to twins. The couple had the children baptized as Catholics in the nearest parish. "I was amazed," Ms. Peranic said, "because even in Bosnia, with our tradition of intermarriage, I had never encountered such a relaxed attitude about religious loyalty. My colleague was surprised at my surprise. He said, 'what should we have done, left the children unbaptized? What counts is God, not the shape of the building where he is worshiped or the costume of the priest.'"
Foreign missionaries have assumed that 50 years of Communism and, in Kosovo, 10 years of Serbian terror had left people open to abandoning their traditional faith. Evangelical Christians from a group called Professionals International have proven assiduous, even offensive, in their recruitment.
After a Jewish service in the synagogue of Sarajevo, two young men who were Americans seated themselves at the communal table for the sabbath dinner, which is free and open to all in the Bosnian city. Their admission that they were Evangelicals rather than Jews was met with little reaction. But when a member of the Jewish congregation commented on the common origin of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in the worship of a single God, they reacted vehemently.
"Allah as the Muslims say is not the same as the God we Christians and Jews worship," Joe Horning, who comes from Chicago, said. "Muslims worship the pagan moon god." This statement was accompanied by insults directed against the Muslim prophet Muhammad. Horning did not see anything inappropriate in declaring such sentiments in a city, Sarajevo, where Jews and Muslims prize their closeness to one another, and where their supporter is Cardinal Vinko Puljić, the archbishop of Sarajevo.
Asked if he would repeat such arguments to Muslims in the streets of the city, Horning said that he had circulated through the nearby refugee camp of Rakovica, attacking Islam and calling the Albanians to become Evangelicals. A visit to Rakovica produced evidence of the impact of such preaching.
Naim Berisha, a Muslim Albanian from Prishtine in Kosovo, who made it to Bosnia with his family, commented, "We are what we are, but everybody wants a part of us -- the Christians say we must go back to our Christian past, the Muslims say we must join their kind of Islam. If we were in Prishtine and someone came to try to change us, we would be angry, but this is not our country and we need help."
Evangelicals do offer help, with strings attached. According to Osman Hamdi, another Rakovica refugee and a former Prishtine resident, whose 3-year-old son wears a pacemaker to control a congenital heart defect, the missionaries offered to take him and his family to the U.S. for special treatment, if the family would join the Protestant sect. The offer was refused.
Muslim sectarians in the camps who come to the camps from elsewhere are seldom better in their approach. Representatives of the Ahmadiyya, an Islamic movement based in Pakistan that seems to concentrate on enlisting young children and turning them into preachers, also approached Osman Hamdi with an offer of help for his son. But, as with the Evangelicals, the Ahmadis vanished from the scene when he rejected their interpretation of Islam.
"The Ahmadiyya came with copies of the Islamic holy texts in Albanian, plus pamphlets promoting their leaders," said Berisha. "We kept the holy texts, as it is proper to do, and threw the pamphlets away. We told them, 'we are already Muslims, but this is not for us.'"
Tensions between rival missionary groups have flared up in the region. The Ahmadiyya have been threatened by members of the Sunni mainstream, Ahl as-Sunna wa'al Jama'at, who are also active in Bosnia.
The only religious group with potential for gaining new members in Kosovo, the Catholic Church, is engaged in no missionary activities. Rather, in the spirit of Mother Teresa, an Albanian from Macedonia whose father was murdered by Serb terrorists, Albanian Catholics have concentrated on supporting the national struggle for survival and maintaining a civil relationship between Catholics, Sunni Muslims, and Bektashi, similar to that in Sarajevo (there are almost no Albanian Orthodox believers in Kosovo.) Every Kosovar Albanian is aware that the "national revival" of the 19th century was lead by Catholic priests and Bektashi mystics, and that Catholic intellectuals and political leaders were the firmest in resisting previous Serbian aggression against the Albanians. In addition, Catholic believers suffered attacks from Serb extremists during the recent war, including the machine-gunning of a Catholic church as parishioners were leaving Mass and the torture of an Albanian Catholic priest forced by Serbian terrorists to eat a candle.
Much of the education of Kosovar and other Albanians about their Catholic heritage is a consequence of the work undertaken in Santa Clara and San Francisco, over twenty years, by the late Gjon Sinishta, the sacristan at St. Ignatius Church and founder of the Daniel Dajani, S.J., Albanian Catholic Institute at the University of San Francisco. Mr. Sinishta, who was truly the "Albanian Solzhenitsyn," made the preservation and transmission of the Albanian Catholic religious and cultural legacy the basis of his whole existence.
Mr. Sinishta's work is beginning to bear fruit. A book on his life, T ë Njohim Gjon Sinisht ën, recently published in Albania by the Catholic scholar Matish Shestani, has become a best-seller. A copy of the book, which includes patriotic verses by Albanian Catholic clergy, was passed from hand to hand in the Rakovica camp.
The book elicited a remarkable reaction from at least one reader. Gani Murtezi, a Kosovar Albanian in his late 30s, had come back to the Balkans after creating a prosperous life for himself and his family in Spain, as a bookseller. He had joined the KLA but remained in Rakovica awaiting orders from the military command. "This book is the most important there is for us Albanians," he said. "Once we are free many of us will look into our past heritage. We were Catholics before the Turkish conquest in the 15th century and many of us will now return to Catholicism. We are of the West, not the East, and we should return to our spiritual home."
Ray Frost, successor to Mr. Sinishta as sacristan at St. Ignatius and as administrator of the Albanian Catholic Institute, cautions against triumphalism in such a situation. "Gjon favored reconciliation between believers, and especially after the horrors of the recent war, he would have worked hard to minimize discord." But Mr. Frost expressed enthusiasm that Mr. Sinishta's efforts in defense of Catholic civilization have found an echo, however obscure, among the Kosovars, for whom Mother Teresa, above all, is a positive spiritual and personal model.