Unique Case of Inter-religious Harmony
Albanian Daily News
Published May 18, 2017

"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

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

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

"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. 

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