Albania’s lesson in Muslim-Christian tolerance

Updated 21 September 2014

Albania’s lesson in Muslim-Christian tolerance

MALBARDH, Albania: Perched up an Albanian mountain, the medieval church of St. Nicolas was rebuilt from a crumbling ruin with help from local Muslims after the fall of communism, a symbol of the religious tolerance Pope Francis will be celebrating here on Sunday.
Majority Muslims and the tiny Catholic and Orthodox communities all faced persecution under the ruthless regime of Enver Hoxha, who in 1967 declared Albania the first atheist country in the world.
Countless churches and mosques were destroyed at the time — as many as 1,820 Catholic and Orthodox places of worship according to the Vatican — with scores of clergymen executed or dying in detention.
Nobody in the Muslim village of Malbardh, 60 kilometers (35 miles) north of Tirana, remembers exactly who built St. Nicolas church or when. Already in a poor state when the communists took power, it was left to crumble to ruins.
But after the fall of the regime in 1992, Malbardh’s Muslims took ecclesiastical authorities by surprise by asking together with their Catholic “brothers” for permission to rebuild the church on its foundations.
“They did not take us seriously. They thought we were trying to get noticed, but we wanted at all costs to rebuild this church,” said Hajdar Lika, a sprightly 77-year-old Muslim.
To get to the church, visitors have to take an off-road car, donkey or pilgrim’s stick up a steep, winding path high above the village.
Surrounded by his Muslim friends, Nikoll Gjini, a Catholic in his 60s, gestures proudly toward the new church, shaded by majestic oak trees.
“Without their help with building materials and construction work, we would have never been able to rebuild it,” said the former chemical industry worker.
At the tiny church, a priest celebrates mass only on major holidays such as Christmas and Easter, but the “holy place” is vital for the small community.
Here in Malbardh, Muslims make up around 90 percent of the village’s 2,500 inhabitants, with the remaining 10 percent Catholic.
Nationwide, some 56 percent of the population of three million are Muslim. They are followed by Catholics who make up 15 percent, and Orthodox Christians who account for 11 percent.
Pope Francis, who pays a one-day visit to Albania on Sunday, chose it for his first European trip in a tribute to the peaceful coexistence of its Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics, who share power in a national unity government.
“The pope’s visit is a reason for pride for all Albanians, regardless of their religion,” said Malbardh’s 42-year-old mayor Agim Lika.
“As a small country, with a tiny Catholic community, we are delighted to be chosen by the pope for his first visit in Europe.”
Locals in Malbardh have long worked to keep their different communities close, and believe the Muslim majority owes protection to the minority Catholics.
“In our village, when someone gets married, according to tradition there must be witnesses from both faiths,” said Hajdar, a former railroad worker with a cigarette poking out from under a nicotine-stained white moustache.
In Derven, some 20 kilometers away, it is a similar story. Muslims also helped Catholics rebuild their chapel which was destroyed in 1967 by the communists.
“My most important mission was to clean up a land contaminated with the venom of dictatorship and atheism,” said father Carmine Leuzzi, looking back on those years.
The priest, sent to Albania from Italy’s Bari, has been watching over 500 Catholic families in Derven for the past 18 years.
“On Sunday, we will all go together to Tirana for the Holy Father’s mass, and I hope those who cannot go will be watching on television.”


‘Terminator’ Rajapaksa storms to victory in Sri Lanka

Updated 35 min 9 sec ago

‘Terminator’ Rajapaksa storms to victory in Sri Lanka

  • Gotabaya Rajapaksa conducted a nationalist campaign with a promise of security and a vow to crush religious extremism
  • His triumph will, however, alarm Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Muslim minorities as well as activists, journalists

COLOMBO: Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who spearheaded the brutal crushing of the Tamil Tigers 10 years ago, stormed to victory Sunday in Sri Lanka’s presidential elections, seven months after Islamist extremist attacks killed 269 people.
Rajapaksa conducted a nationalist campaign with a promise of security and a vow to crush religious extremism in the Buddhist-majority country following the April 21 suicide bomb attacks blamed on a homegrown militant group.
His triumph will, however, alarm Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Muslim minorities as well as activists, journalists and possibly some in the international community following the 2005-15 presidency of his older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Mahinda, with Gotabaya effectively running the security forces, ended a 37-year civil war with Tamil separatists. His decade in power was also marked by alleged rights abuses, murky extra-judicial killings and closer ties with China.
Gotabaya, a retired lieutenant-colonel, 70, nicknamed the “Terminator” by his own family, romped to victory with 51.9 percent of the vote, results from the two-thirds of votes counted so far showed.
“I didn’t sleep all night,” said student Devni, 22, one of around 30 people who gathered outside Rajapaksa’s Colombo residence. “I am so excited, he is the president we need.”
Rajapaksa’s main rival, the moderate Sajith Premadasa of the ruling party, trailed on 42.3 percent. The 52-year-old conceded the race and congratulated Rajapaksa.
On Sunday three cabinet members resigned — including Finance Minister Mangalar Samaraweera.
The final result was expected later on Sunday with Rajapaksa due to be sworn in on Monday. Turnout was over 80 percent.
Premadasa had strong support in minority Tamil areas but a poor showing in Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese heartland, a core support base where Rajapaksa won some two-thirds of the vote.
Saturday’s poll was the first popularity test of the United National Party (UNP) government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Wickremesinghe’s administration failed to prevent the April attacks despite prior and detailed intelligence warnings from India, according a parliamentary investigation.
Premadasa also offered better security and a pledge to make a former war general, Sarath Fonseka, his national security chief, projecting himself as a victim seeking to crush terrorism.
He is the son of assassinated ex-president Ranasinghe Premadasa who fell victim to a Tamil rebel suicide bomber in May 1993.
But Gotabaya is adored by the Sinhalese majority and the powerful Buddhist clergy for how he and Mahinda ended the war in 2009, when 40,000 Tamil civilians allegedly perished at the hands of the army.
Under his brother, Gotabaya was defense secretary and effectively ran the security forces, allegedly overseeing “death squads” that bumped off rivals, journalists and others. He denies the allegations.
This makes the brothers detested and feared among many Tamils, who make up 15 percent of the population. Some in the Muslim community, who make up 10 percent, are also fearful of Gotabaya, having faced days of mob violence in the wake of the April attacks.
Under Mahinda, Sri Lanka also borrowed heavily from China for infrastructure projects and even allowed two Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo in 2014, alarming Western countries as well as India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on Sunday that India looked forward to “deepening the close and fraternal ties... and for peace, prosperity as well as security in our region.”
The projects ballooned Sri Lanka’s debts and many turned into white elephants — such as an airport in the south devoid of airlines — mired in corruption allegations.
Unlike in 2015 when there were bomb attacks and shootings, this election was relatively peaceful by the standards of Sri Lanka’s fiery politics.
The only major incident was on Saturday when gunmen fired at two vehicles in a convoy of at least 100 buses taking Muslim voters to cast ballots. Two people were injured.
According to the Election Commission the contest was, however, the worst ever for hate speech and misinformation.