by Stephen Schwartz
The invasion of Kosova by Islamist radicals, including assaults on moderate Muslims (see here, here, and here) now includes threats of a "religious war" against Albanian Christians, some of whom have left Islam for the Catholic faith of their ancestors.
On August 20, a man named Gjon (John) Mehaj declared to Albanian-language media, from Norway, that his home in the Kosova village of Prigode-Istog had been burned to the ground. Mehaj supported the Kosova Liberation Army during the 1998-99 war in the Balkan republic, and the house had been razed at that time by Serbian forces. But Mehaj, who formerly bore the Muslim first name Enver, said the new attack was not unexpected. He had received "numerous, anonymous threats" from radical Muslim groups before and after he was baptized in a Catholic church on August 3. He was joined in his act of faith by 20 other family members.
Mehaj had earlier been denounced in an email from something called the "Islamic Defense Organization of Kosova." With cynical politeness that swiftly turned to a blunt idiom of intimidation, that entity declared that "as faithful Muslims we have managed to agree on some projects in order to defend our religion. This is aimed at stopping . . . the conversion of families like that of Mehaj and others. Our project will be implemented very soon by activating our forces in the whole of Kosova. Our jihad will be ready if anyone attacks Islam. If the Catholic Church thinks it can convert the Albanian Muslims to Christianity, then a religious war is to be expected between Catholics and Muslims, a war that would make [the Serbian massacre of Bosnian Muslims at] Srebrenica worth forgetting." Kosova is 85-90 percent Muslim, with the remainder Catholic, although matters of religion, aside from holidays, are seldom publicized by its people.
The jihadist threat to outdo the Serbs in committing mass murder--8,000 men and boys were slaughtered at Srebrenica--confirms the opinion of many prominent Kosovar Albanian Muslims, who now decline to speak for attribution. But they have said for some time that radical Islam would be a worse threat to the Albanians than their Slavic adversaries. The same "Islamic Defense" gang identified a previously-unknown network, titled "Jihad Calling," as proud perpetrators of violence, and endorsed it in attempting to "cleanse Kosova of Christian unbelievers," by bloodshed. A third crew, the "Forum of Young Muslims in Kosova," assailed Father Pren Kola, the Catholic priest who baptized the Mehaj family. It also invoked the Serbs, but in mirror-fashion, claiming that Catholics represent a bigger threat to the Kosovars.
Sudden forgetfulness about the Serbian campaign, backed by Putin's Russia, against independent Kosova, and increasing religious polarization among Albanians, is deeply alarming. Some Albanians claim Islamist aggression is backed by Serbs avid to divide the Albanians. But Gjon Mehaj, whose house was destroyed, points in another direction. He argues that "Jihad Calling," the alleged miscreants in the arson attack, who typically keep their identities hidden by ski-masks, are Arab interlopers protected by high officials in the Kosova Islamic leadership. Along with menacing emails and public denunciation, Mehaj received abusive telephone calls, which he archived. But he stated that having rebuilt his house once, he will do so again, since the terrorists "can burn down buildings but will never defeat our hearts and our faith."
Until recently, open strife between Albanian Muslims and Catholics was rare. Religion was long considered secondary to nationality, language, and regional affiliations among Albanians, an isolated people with few foreign friends--except, notably, American leaders from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush. Albanian Muslims joined in Christian-led uprisings against Turkish domination. In the highlands, religious identity was often ambiguous, with Muslim and Catholics alike turning to the clerics of both faiths for assistance. Mixed families have been long-established in Kosova, along with a curious local phenomenon, the "Laramani." Among these obscure folk, family heads became publicly Muslim but continued to practice Catholicism at home. Some Laramani are said to still exist in Kosova, but while they have a shrine to the Black Virgin in the village of Letnica, it is mostly visited these days by Roma (Gypsies).
Apostasy is unpopular among most religious communities, and is especially problematical in Islam. The belief that leaving one's religion should be punished by death has become dominant in many Muslim countries, although it has no basis in the Koran. Yet the official historian of the Catholic church in Kosova, Gasper Gjini, has pointed out that in 1846, "to everyone's surprise," the Laramani were granted the right to return to the Christianity of their forebears, after clashes with Muslim fanatics, by Rashid Pasha, the local Ottoman military commander. Non-Albanian historians have offered varying accounts of these events, but Gjini's work is based in primary source documents in Catholic archives. Rashid Pasha's judgment was confirmed by an order of the Turkish sultan. Thus, Kosova has long had a clear precedent negating the claim that those who leave Islam should be killed.
The record of Ottoman governance and the tradition of Albanian religious coexistence, however, mean nothing to fundamentalist extremists. Kosova, like other Muslim lands, is now under assault by incendiaries who wish to make personal changes in religion a pretext for terror. This malign development comes even as American and other Christian missionaries enjoy wide freedom to proselytize in the territory.
Three issues are illuminated by the flames of Gjon Mehaj's house in Kosova.
First, the Balkans are no less targeted by jihadists than other crisis areas, as al Qaeda continues probing for opportunities to attack the friends of an America suddenly weakened by confusion and naivete in the White House.
Second, both foreign and local authorities in Kosova may bear significant responsibility, by failing to respond vigorously to such incidents, for the obvious impunity with which the men in masks, whether Arab, Albanian, or otherwise, have committed crimes against people and property.
Third, death penalties against those who leave Islam do more harm to the faith of Muhammad than those who abandon or change their religion. Protests against penalties for apostasy are widely publicized by Western governments and international institutions. But Kosovar Albanians, like many others at immediate risk, may be left to defend themselves for their choice of conscience.