“Freedom of religion or belief is a practical reality in Albania, and there is much the world can learn from the Albanian experience in respecting freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief and achieving inter-religious harmony,” has said the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed.
Mr. Shaheed, from the Maldives, who was appointed as Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief by the UN Human Rights Council in 2016, made that comment at the end of his first fact-finding mission to Albania, from 8 to 17 May, 2017, during a press conference held in Tirana on Wednesday.
"Albania today is a functioning democracy and was in June 2014 granted EU candidate status. The country is undergoing further democratic reform for the ultimate aim of EU accession. Albania is making progress in addressing all of the five key priorities as identified by the EU Commission as a set of reforms necessary to advance in the EU integration path," Mr. Shaheed said, considering Albanian experience as unique case of inter- religious harmony.
The five areas set by Brussels to Albania in its EU accession drive include fight against corruption; fight against organized crime; strengthening of the judiciary; improvement of public administration; and advancement of human rights.
Albania is a secular state with no official religion and a pluralistic religious landscape. According to the 2011 census statistics which was based on self-declaration of persons, 57 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, 10 percent is Roman Catholic, 7 percent (Christian) Orthodox, 8-9 percent belong to other faiths (including Bektashism, a Sufi order whose world headquarters are in Albania), and 14 percent did not express or give a declaration about religious affiliation. There are five “religious communities” that are legally recognized and have entered into agreements with the state which include the Muslims, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Bektashis and Protestant Evangelicals that managed to attain “religious community” status as of 2011. There are other religious minority groups which are not formally recognized as “religious communities” by the state, but they can instead organize themselves under the country’s NGO law.
According to Mr. Shaheed, among the primary achievements of Albania in protecting freedom of religion of belief is an almost complete reversal of the policies that were pursued in the Communist era and the creation of widespread confidence that the state respects the freedom of religion or belief of all persons within the country.
He praised the Albanian Government’s policies and practices to promote and protect interreligious harmony and coexistence in the country as well as its efforts to limit the scope of restrictions on the public manifestation of religion in this Balkan country, including in relation to the exercise of rites and rituals related to sacred events.
Albanians' ethos of ‘living together’
Albania has managed to undergo a rapid reconstruction of the religious infrastructure and the revitalization of spiritual leadership that has taken place since the end of authoritarian rule in 1990, while at the same time avoiding political mobilization along religious fault lines. It seems that this phenomenon was seemingly reflective of the resilience and inclusive nature of the Albanian identity.
The UN Special Rapporteur had been impressed by the high degree of interreligious marriage and social, political, economic and residential intermingling, as well as the very low number of reported cases of discrimination on account of religion or belief, which suggested that the ethos of ‘living together’ in mutual respect and harmony was not just a slogan, but a deeply-held value for many Albanians.
However, Mr. Shaheed noted that Albania’s multi-religious society faces many challenges, including democratic consolidation, economic and social development, as well as those related to rapid globalisation, and urged the authorities to address unresolved issues dating back to 1967, when Albania officially became an atheist state.
The expert noted that Albania is a multi-religious society with a deeply troubled past where intense and systematic persecution of all religions, after the late sixties, when it effectively wiped out religious institutions in the country and extinguished all public expressions of religion by the eighties.
“Many issues related to the abuses carried out prior to the end of the authoritarian rule in 1990 remain unresolved, such as the restitution of properties seized and destroyed or repurposed by the state,” he stressed. “However, the free, voluntary and respectful expression of religious sentiment lies at the heart of the interreligious harmony and co-existence that characterizes the situation of freedom of religion or belief in Albania today.”
“The underlying circumstances and disposition that nourish and promote interfaith harmony in Albania are unique to the country, and there are many examples of good practices, in both governmental policy and communal engagement that can be instructive to the international community,” Mr. Shaheed said.
Among them, the expert noted the State’s neutral position towards the religious or belief communities in the country, and the positive, respectful and inclusive engagement of religious communities with the State. He also drew attention to a robust legal framework that guarantees the freedom of religion for all in all its dimensions; the promotion of societal attitudes of mutual respect across different religious and belief communities; and a genuine societal commitment to interfaith solidarity and cooperation.
The Special Rapporteur also noted the rapid reconstruction of the religious infrastructures and the revitalization of spiritual leadership that has taken place since 1990, and expressed hope regarding the apparent absence of political mobilization along religious fault lines.
“I call on the Government to continue the country’s trajectory towards democratic consolidation especially strengthening the rule of law,” the Special Rapporteur said. “I encourage it to pursue the priority dimensions of its national strategy on the prevention of violent extremism, especially introducing respectful civic education on religions, managing increasing religious diversity, and investing in social inclusion.”
More vigilance against extremist religious groups
In the meantime he cautioned that several stakeholders, including Government officials, had told him during meetings that Albanians should not take their unique experiment of religious plurality and interfaith harmony as a given, rather it is something that requires constant care and attention one stakeholder had told him.
The UN official referred also to the question of the phenomenon of ethnic Albanians fighters, including some from Albania, traveling to Syria, as well as to an apparent rise in the number of “unregistered” mosques built by foreign money source, something which required that the Government should change its “laissez-faire policy” when it comes to allowing religious groups to organize and build new houses of worship.
"While being careful to note that there were, in fact, very few cases of foreign terrorist fighters going to Syria from Albania and that the problem of “extremist” or “radical” religious groups now appears effectively to be under control, several officials said that the country’s new strategy to counter violent extremism demonstrated the desire for more vigilance," he said.
Situation of Religious Minorities
Mr. Shaheed said he had a chance to meet with several representatives of religious minority groups. "While these groups talked about the lack of resources compared to the traditional religious groups and discussed the possibility of elevating their legal status in order to take advantage of benefits including tax exemption, there are no initial indications that the domestic legal framework has had a negative impact on their ability to exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief. Additionally, my preliminary assessment does not suggest that these communities are subjected to discrimination on account of their actual or perceived religious identity either by the state or society at large," he said, adding that the situation seemed somewhat more complicated in the case of national or ethnolinguistic minorities in the Albania, in particular the Greeks and Macedonians.
Both of these minorities are legally recognized as “national minorities” in Albania (along with Montenegrins). This legal recognition provides them with official status as minorities, and generally allows them to use their language in matters related to education and the press. Some members of these communities expressed frustration at what they allege is general discrimination, primarily by the state, that targets their communities.
"I also met with representatives of the Jewish community and the Bahai faith who confirmed that their freedom of religion or belief was guaranteed in law and practice," said the UN Special Rapporteur.
As main recommendations to the Government, according to Mr. Shaheed, it was important that the restitution of properties as well as the legalization of houses of worship are expedited and carried out in a fair and transparent manner, and with the engagement of stakeholders. In addition the state should continue to facilitate and encourage interfaith and intra-faith initiatives and activities, and contribute to sharing good practice with international partners. "It would be important to take steps to strengthen the separation between political mobilization and religion and to nurture the inclusive national identity, while fully respecting the rights of national and linguistic minorities, especially in the context of the changing religious landscape of the country," he said.
Asked if he had met representatives of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), who have settled down in Albania after being transferred from Iraq, the UN senior official said that he had not met any of them as such a thing had not been on his agenda. However, Mr. Shaheed added that he would have liked to meet them because he had been the former Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran. But, he underlined that sources had told him that they did not have any problems in Albania.
During his ten-day visit, Mr. Shaheed met with members of the government, civil society, international organisations, foreign diplomats, human rights organisations, religious communities, and minority groups in a range of meetings conducted in Tirana, Kavaja, Korca, Girokastra and Shkodra. The Special Rapporteur will present a final report on his mission to the Human Rights Council in March 2018.