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Albania's Islamic Rebirth
Saudi Aramco World / July-August 1992

By Larry Luxner

One Friday midday several months ago, hundreds of devout Muslims crowded into the Ethem Bey mosque in downtown Tiranė for Albania's first legal Muslim prayer service in 24 years. Outside, some 15,000 onlookers listened in amazement as the long-forgotten call of the muezzin echoed through the city's streets.

The scene would have been unthinkable in Albania only five years ago. But ever since the collapse of Communism throughout the nations of Eastern Europe, scenarios once unthinkable seem to be unfolding almost daily in Albania, the only European nation with a Muslim majority.

On March 22 this year, nearly 50 years of Marxist rule ended when voters overwhelmingly chose a Muslim cardiologist, Sali Berisha, as president - the first democratically elected leader in Albanian history.

"We want to build a society of free enterprise, a state built on law with full respect for human rights, and we want to see our people and our nation integrated into Europe," Berisha told reporters during a pre-election rally last February at Tiranė 's Qemal Stafa Stadium.

At that rally, thousands of students cheered as shaggy-haired stand-up comedians told anti-Communist jokes and Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock" boomed from the loudspeakers. Only three years earlier, long hair or rock music were themselves grounds for arrest. So, too, was admitted belief in God - and that in a nation where an official census taken in 1945, the year after the Communists came to power, showed that 72 percent of Albanians professed Islam, 17 percent Orthodox Christianity and 10 percent Roman Catholicism.

Yet until 1991, few of the country's 3.2 million inhabitants dared to openly profess anything but allegiance to the Albanian Workers' Party, which had dominated every aspect of life since its formation during World War II by the late Marxist dictator Enver Hoxha.

Throughout their long history, the tough, proud inhabitants of this small Balkan nation - descendants of the Illyrians, an Indo-European people whose origins go back to the late Bronze Age - have rarely enjoyed political or religious freedom.

Archeological excavations at Butrint, along the Adriatic Sea near Albania's border with Greece, show that the first group to leave its mark on the country was the Kaon tribe, which lived in the area from around 800 to 600 BC Albania, or Illyria, was subsequently invaded by the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines - around the 11th century of our era - and finally by the Turks. A beautifully preserved Roman amphitheater at Butrint dates from the second century. Nearby are Ottoman tombstones carved with Arabic script and dating from the 1400's.

Sulejman Dashi, a Tiranė architect specializing in restoration of medieval structures, says the country's oldest mosque was built in 1380 in the town of Berat, around the time the Ottoman Empire began setting its sights on Albania. In Korēė, a town near the Greek border, one of Albania's oldest Muslim sites can be found: the mosque of Ilias Mirahori, constructed in 1494.

"My father and my mother were Muslims," the architect says. "When I was a child, we went to the mosque. My grandfather taught us the Qur'an."

According to Dashi, some 800 mosques are scattered around Albania, as well as 360 other Muslim sites. One of the most important is located in the picturesque mountain town of Kruje, 20 kilometers (12½ miles) north of Tiranė .

Dating from 1779, this remote mosque is accessible only by walking along a narrow path from the castle of Skanderbeg - Albania's 15th-century national hero - and through a village where all the houses are hewn from stone.

"The mosque of Krujė has a roof, not a cupola; in Albania you can find only two kinds of mosques: ones with a cupola or dome, and ones with a roof," Dashi explains. "Those with domes have a portico before the entrance, and usually a minaret on the left. In mosques with roofs, the sanctuary is rectangular, not square."

The architect is restoring a mosque in Gjirokastėr, Enver Hoxha's birthplace, as well as the Abdurrahman Pashi mosque in Peqin, near Elbasan.

"The Peqin mosque is one of the most important examples of Islamic culture in Albania," he continues. "It was built in 1822 and has its clock tower and minaret connected together in the main section. And the mosque of Shkodėr is the only one in Albania influenced by the imperial style of Istanbul."

Skanderbeg - the name is a conflation of his Muslim name, Iskander, and his Ottoman rank of bey - was an Albanian prince given to the Turkish sultan as a hostage while still a boy. In 1443 he left the Turks to fight against them for his country's independence. His statue dominates the main square of Tiranė , for he is still revered in Albania for having held the Ottoman Turks at bay for 36 years. He died in 1468, and his movement was ultimately defeated by Sultan Mehmet II in 1479.

Except for the beginning of the 19th century, when Ali Pasha of Tepelenė established a short-lived independent principality in the southern half of the country, Albania was thereafter little more than a backwater of the sprawling Ottoman Empire. That status continued until 1912, when another patriot, Ismail Qemal, rose up to declare Albania's independence.

Through the long years of Ottoman rule, most Albanians came to practice Islam, though a minority continued to follow the Orthodox rite of neighboring Greece, and still others, under Vatican influence, chose Roman Catholicism. It was in that period that religious tolerance, generally a characteristic of Ottoman rule, became an national trait that has since stood Albanians - and others - in good stead.

When Kemal Atatürk, the secularist founder of modern Turkey, banned dervish orders from the new republic, Albania accepted their adherents - thus becoming the world center of the Bektashi order. And during the Fascist and Nazi occupation of World War II, Albania refused to turn over its 300-member Jewish community to the Germans. "It was in the interests of Albanians not to cultivate religious hatred," says Albanian Jewish historian Joseph Yakoel. "The mosque and the church did not divide one Albanian from another."

But following the Communist victory over the Nazis and the declaration of an Albanian people's socialist republic, Hoxha warned Muslim and other clerics not to preach against his hard-line government, according to Muslim leader Baba Bajram Mahmetaj.

Bajram himself ignored the order and told fellow Muslims that the Communists would eventually destroy religion itself. For this he was imprisoned for 15 years, then sent into internal exile in northern Albania for another 15 years.

"There was so much torture that if I tell you, you'll say I'm lying," recalls Bajram, now 80. "They beat us, tried to drown us in canals, made us do hard labor in the swamps and marshes."

According to Peter R. Prifti, author of Socialist Albania Since 1944, two prominent Muslim leaders, Baba Fajo and Baba Fejzo, were murdered in March 1947 in circumstances that are still unclear. Other Muslim clerics disappeared, including Mustafa Effendi Varoshi, mufti of Durrės; Hafez Ibrahim Dibra, former grand mufti of Albania, and Sheh Xhemel Pazari of Tiranė. By 1968, says the New York-based Free Albania Committee, the Communists had executed or sentenced to labor camps some 200 religious leaders of all faiths.

In 1967, Hoxha went a step further and declared Albania the world's first officially atheist state. By May of that year, 2169 mosques, churches, monasteries and other religious institutions had been closed, converted to other uses, or destroyed.

Finally, on November 13, 1967, the Albanian People's Assembly annulled earlier statutes guaranteeing freedom of religion. Believers caught wearing any kind of religious symbol now risked up to 10 years' imprisonment.

"The mosques became stables for cows, and the churches became gymnasiums for volleyball," laments Yakoel. "In the town of Shkodėr, there was a mosque with two minarets. They destroyed it."

Nonetheless, adds Sabie Bagosi, a devout Muslim woman who now visits the Krujė mosque regularly, "during the time religion was forbidden, people came here illegally and lit candles and prayed. But they were afraid because if someone caught them, they'd be put in prison."

"Before 1967," says Rukije Skifteri, whom her neighbors kindly refer to as "the dervish lady," "a lot of Muslims [recited the Qur'an] like I did. There were thousands. At one time, telegrams used to arrive here [from other Muslim countries,] congratulating us on the coming of 'Id al-Fitr."

Today, she fears, because of Albania's self-imposed isolation, Muslims here have lost all connections with their coreligionists outside the country. "A lot more people are going to the mosques than before, but many don't know how to worship as Muslims, because they forgot," she says.

Until World War II, says Mihal Dhima, a 43-year-old schoolteacher in Sarande, Albania was essentially a feudal kingdom. British adventurer Edith Durham's classic travelogue, High Albania, is a chronicle of the blood feuds and vendettas that characterized most of Albanian history until the early 20th century.

"Throughout the history of Albania," Dhima says, "occupiers have tried to divide the people, even people within the same village. But when the moment came to fight against the occupiers, the Albanians were united."

Thus, with the onset of World War II, Albanians banded together to fight the Fascist and later Nazi occupiers. Today, nearly the entire countryside - from Sarandė in the south to Shkodėr in the north - is dotted with memorials to partisans who died in battle.

"Before World War II, religious activities blossomed," says Dylber Vrioni, a high-ranking official of the ruling Democratic Party, which captured 92 of the new parliament's 140 seats in last March's elections.

"The Greeks and the Italians both wanted to dominate us after independence from the Turks," Vrioni says. "Their struggle developed through religion —Italy worked through the Vatican and Greece through the Orthodox Church" — another example of outsiders trying to divide Albanians.

Yet, he adds, "for us, the ban on religious activities [in 1967] was a pity: It was one of the ways the government made clear to the people that even our dreams and hopes were controlled by the party."

In late 1990, Vrioni explains, "religious activity was allowed again because of international pressure. In Shkodėr, within a day of the order, the people gathered and divided all the religious property evenly between the Christians and Muslims. There was a wonderful solidarity between the religions."

And, although grievous damage was done during Albania's official period of atheism, much remained intact for the faithful. According to architect Sulejman Dashi, of the 1050 mosques that existed before 1967, 800 survive today. About 30 of the most important ones have been well preserved as a result of a 1967 edict which, he says, "protected Albania's cultural patrimony while" allowing the people to destroy those mosques and churches which had no historical value."

Dashi says the edict was issued only because the chief of Albania's institute of architectural preservation convinced the Communists that the destruction had to be stopped. "If it had gone on for another three years," he says, "you wouldn't be able to find any mosques or churches in Albania today."

Dashi, whose tiny studio is tucked away into a medieval-looking stone structure a few blocks from the 15-story Hotel Tiranė — the city's only skyscraper — spends his days supervising the restoration of mosques, churches and other monuments.

"In Shkodėr [the center of Albania's Catholic minority], four mosques were destroyed," he says. "The minarets of all the rest were destroyed. A normal man cannot understand this. Even in Durrės, the Xhamia Fatih, which was first a church and later a mosque protected by the government, had its minaret destroyed - but now I'm building a new one." He adds that he's already helped restore one mosque in Vlorė and three in Berat.

Tiranė , Albania's capital and by far its largest city with some 200,000 inhabitants, also boasts its most important Islamic landmark - the Ethem Bey mosque fronting Skanderbeg Square.

A recent Friday afternoon visit to this imposing mosque revealed hundreds of men facing toward Makkah and praying to God, just the same way Muslims pray anywhere. In addition, several female worshipers, for whom no separate area had been set aside, congregated around the entrance; they included a teenage girl reading from an Albanian-language. Qur'an printed in Yugoslavia's Kosovo province, home to two million ethnic Albanian Muslims.

Hassan Hafiz, the mosque's 61-year-old imam, estimates there are only 200 or so practicing imams like himself throughout Albania, and fewer than 3000 Albanian Muslims who can read Arabic.

"I finished school in 1953. That's where I learned Arabic," he says. The Islamic school where he studied was shut down in 1964. "After religion was abolished, the Muslims practiced secretly. Those who were caught were subject to ridicule," he recalls, adding that "even though Muslims and Christians were put in prison, only those who talked about political problems were killed."

In 1990, when religious worship was allowed once again, Hafiz and 180 other Albanian Muslims were permitted - for the first time ever - to make the pilgrimage to Makkah.

"I was very happy to go. It felt like being reborn," Hafiz says. "When I was on the airplane, it seemed to us that all the stars in the sky were Makkah."

Besides freedom of religion and freedom to travel, other big changes have left visible marks on long-suffering Albania. Enver Hoxha's name has been removed from every street, farm cooperative, school, factory, clinic and building in the country; slogans such as that found on a sign outside Hoxha's hometown of Gjirokastėr - "Let's raise the flag of our heroic party and the monumental work of Comrade Enver Hoxha" - are rapidly disappearing from the Albanian countryside; automobiles, long banned as a sign of capitalist decadence, are being imported at the rate of 1500 a month.

Yet the few foreigners who venture into Albania these days get an impression of barely restrained anarchy. With elections out of the way, observers there felt it would take months to restore law and order - and years to revive Albania's shattered economy. "We are like a country destroyed by war," says Central Bank governor Ilir Bur-han Hoti.

"We don't produce anything. Nothing functions here," laments Svetlana Roko, an official at Albania's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Everything we eat comes from abroad. Raw materials don't exist. This is why the economic situation is so bad."

"Our food rations allow each family three kilos of meat [six pounds 10 ounces], three kilos of cheese and one kilo of butter per month," says Albturist guide Agim Neza, who earns the black-market equivalent of $20 a month. "For milk, you have to go at nine in the evening and stand in line till five the next morning. I'm worried that if we don't get help, if things don't improve soon, people will want to go back to Marxism."

One place help is already coming from is the United States. An estimated 250,000 Americans are of Albanian heritage; roughly a third are Muslim.

The Very Rev. Arthur Liolin, chancellor of the Albanian Orthodox Archdiocese in America and pastor of St. George Cathedral in Boston, says there are four Albanian mosques in the United States - one each in Detroit, Brooklyn, Chicago and Waterbury, Connecticut.

"The original arrivals were mostly Orthodox and Muslim, and they all helped each other," says Liolin, who has traveled to Albania more than a dozen times. "When the first Albanian Orthodox church in America was established in the 1920's, many Muslims supported it. Later, when the first mosque was built, the Muslims got help from the Orthodox. In the 1950's, both groups helped the Albanian Catholics when they established themselves in the United States."

Ekrem Bardha is among the most successful Albanian Muslims in America. Having escaped from Albania in 1953 after one of his brothers was jailed for political crimes, he settled in Detroit and went into the restaurant business, eventually becoming the owner of seven McDonald's fast-food franchises.

Last year, Bardha returned to do business in the once-Marxist state. His goal: to see Big Mac replace Big Brother in the land of his birth. "My aim in opening a McDonald's here is to show Albanians how free enterprise works," the entrepreneur says. "It may be a joke now, but in the very near future, it could be a possibility."

William Ryerson, the newly appointed US ambassador to Albania, notes that in the midst of poverty, Albanians are curious about religion. Recently, he met a group of young boys who were learning Arabic so that they could study the Qur'an.

"Geographically Albania is a European country," says Central Bank governor Hoti, who puts the proportion of Muslims in today's Albanian population at 80 percent. "But spiritually the country is looking forward to closer ties with Arabs and Muslims, for whom we can be the bridge to Europe."

Today, Albania has not only renewed diplomatic ties with the once-hated United States - after a 52-year break - but has also established relations with Saudi Arabia. In recent months, Saudi government officials have visited Tiranė and offered substantial quantities of aid. And in June, an Islamic investment bank was established in Albania, with the memorandum of understanding signed in Jiddah.

For the first time, the Albanian government has also allowed foreign investors to participate in the country's oil industry, which produces about 1.5 million metric tons a year from onshore wells. American energy companies Occidental Petroleum and Chevron have signed agreements for offshore exploration in the Adriatic Sea, as have Italy's Agip and Germany's Deminex. Last month, the United States signed a bilateral trade agreement with Albania.

With Marxism thoroughly discredited and trade and investment likely to blossom, all of Albania's political parties, including the former Communists, now sing the same tune - democracy, free-market economy and reconciliation with the past. "All Albanians, especially the younger generation and the intellectuals, are determined to go forward," says Kastriot Islami, former chairman of the Albanian Parliament.

For President Sali Berisha, the key to Albania's future success is unwavering respect for human rights, as well as guaranteed religious freedom for all citizens and renewed faith in God. "It's very important to me," says the country's hopeful new leader, "because people who believe in God will have His blessing."


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