An interesting note by Stephen Schwartz...
by Joseph Bottum
An interesting note by Stephen Schwartz in the new issue of FIRST THINGS takes up the troubles of Albania. The religious believers of Albania may have suffered more than those of any other nation in eastern Europe over the fifty years of Communist rule after World War II. The Stalinists were determined to make Albania the world's first true atheist state, and they systematically destroyed the cultures of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Islamic faith.
A decade ago—after the fall of the Communist regimes in eastern Europe—John Paul II promised help for Albania's recovery, and in his FIRST THINGS article, Schwartz sharply castigates the Vatican for its failure to fulfill the pope's promise: Though only a jump across the Adriatic from Italy, Albania seems to remain terra incognita to Rome, and the Vatican officials sent to the capital, Tirana, have not yet joined in the rebuilding of the damaged Catholic culture in such traditional centers as Shkodra, seventy miles to the north.
A key part of Schwartz's analysis is the claim that Albania offers unique possibilities for interreligious work: Precisely because they all suffered so much under the Communists, the Albanian Catholics, Orthodox, and Muslims are willing to set aside much of their old, Ottoman-era antagonism and joined in the effort to revitalize the religious life of the nation.
Some of this is simply a local application to Albania of the general thesis, put by Schwartz put in his book The Two Faces of Islam, that the West ought to insist on the more humane and modern Balkan and European forms of Islam, rather than taking the Arabs, with their Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism, as the only model for Islamic culture. But Schwartz also claimed that Albania was further advanced than any other Balkan country in the willingness of the religious to work together.
So what are we to make of the news reports in March that Albania's Muslims were out in force to denounce the erection of a statue to Mother Teresa, the most famous Albanian Catholic, in the town of Shkodra? That certainly seemed to make hash of Schwartz's notion that Albania could escape the patterns that, for instance, brought a Christian convert close to death in Afghanistan.
As it turns out, however, the controversy suggests that Schwartz may be right—for the planned protest marches failed to materialize, and all the largest and most prestigious Islamic groups in Albania quickly repudiated the attempt to create interreligious hatred, claiming it was the work of outside Wahhabi agitators. According to an Associated Press report, Selim Muca, the leader of the Albanian Muslim Community, the organization representing all Muslims in Albania, said "We respect the contribution of the distinguished figures of our nation, like that of Mother Teresa, who is the honor of our nation."
To the Vatican's nuncios—to the U.S. State Department, for that matter—this ought to be a signal that the Arabs are not the sole possessors of an Islamic tradition. And it ought to be a signal, as well, that the Christian communities in eastern Europe are still vibrant and worth helping.
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