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.”


Turkey blocks delivery of medical equipment to coronavirus hard-hit Spain

Updated 38 min 53 sec ago

Turkey blocks delivery of medical equipment to coronavirus hard-hit Spain

  • Spain had yet to receive the respirators it had bought from China after Turkey “decided to keep them in case they may need them in their battle against coronavirus”
  • Turkey earlier restricted the export of respirator-related medical equipment in order to meet domestic needs

DUBAI: The Spanish government said on Friday that Turkey had blocked a delivery of medical supplies urgently needed to help tackle the coronavirus outbreak in the country, local daily El Pais reported.  

Spain had yet to receive the respirators it had bought from China after Turkey “decided to keep them in case they may need them in their battle against coronavirus,” Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya said during a press conference.

The newly appointed minister of Spain - which on Saturday has briefly overtaken Italiy as the country with the second-highest number of COVID-19 infections - said the equipment remained in Turkish custody over Ankara’s restrictions on the export of medical devices.

Last month Turkey’s trade minister said the country was restricting the export of respirator-related medical equipment in order to meet domestic needs.

Ruhsar Pekcan said that the export of equipment including ventilators, intubation devices and intensive care monitors would be subject to government authorization.

The Spanish embassy said it had been trying to resume the delivery of the respirators, which were particularly bought by two local communities with critically ill coronavirus patients, according to unnamed sources cited by El Pais.