In Albania, Ramadan under lockdown revives memories of communism

Xhemal Hafizi, Imam of the Tanners’ Mosque, prays alone on the first night of the holy month of Ramadan, in Tirana on April 23, 2020 during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 disease, caused by the novel coronavirus. (AFP/Gent Shkullaku)
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Updated 25 April 2020

In Albania, Ramadan under lockdown revives memories of communism

  • Like many parts of the world, mosques in Muslim-majority Albania are eerily empty while iftar supper tables have fewer chairs than normal as families shelter at home to curb the spread of the virus
  • The intimate settings inevitably stir up memories of how they were forced to furtively keep their faith alive under the long and brutal reign of the late communist dictator Enver Hoxha

TIRANA: Stuck in their Tirana flat under a coronavirus lockdown, 81-year-old Osman Hoxha and his family quietly mark the start of Ramadan, recalling the communist era when practicing religion meant risking death.
Like many parts of the world, mosques in Muslim-majority Albania are eerily empty while iftar supper tables have fewer chairs than normal as families shelter at home to curb the spread of the virus.
For older generations, the intimate settings inevitably stir up memories of how they were forced to furtively keep their faith alive under the long and brutal reign of the late communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who outlawed religion.
“We had to pray behind the walls of our homes for fear of ending up in prison or being sentenced to death,” remembers Osman, wearing a black cap and grey vest, after the first day of fasting in his Tirana home.
Decades later, the country faces a different kind of enemy.
“During communism we had to observe fasting discreetly because if someone saw us it could cost us our lives, whereas today we risk death from a virus that can kill you,” says Osman’s wife Minire, 74.
Enver Hoxha, the dictator whose common surname Osman’s family shares, adopted the Marxist motto that religion was the “opium of the people” and declared Albania the world’s first atheist country in 1967.
Under his 40-year reign, hundreds of mosques and churches were destroyed or transformed, dozens of priests and Muslim clerics were sentenced to hard labor and many others died in prison or were murdered by firing squad.
In total, some 6,000 people were executed by the paranoid regime for alleged crimes ranging from treason to foreign travel or practicing a faith.
Tens of thousands more were sent to prisons or camps for forced labor or internment.
Among them was Osman.
As a young man in the 1960s, he was forced to work at a stone quarry after his brother fled the country, bringing suspicion on the rest of his relatives.
But the family nevertheless nurtured their faith, practicing Islam in secret until houses of worship were able to reopen in 1990, just before communism collapsed.
The country has since seen a religious revival. More than half of the 2.8 million population identifies as Muslim, mostly of a moderate strand, while around 30 percent are Catholic and Orthodox Christians.
In recent decades, Osman’s family has been celebrating the iftar meal with some 20 people at their dinner table.
This year the group is down to seven, among them the grandparents, their son Agron and his wife and children.
“I wish this table was big and my house could be full of friends and relatives,” Minire said as she prepared supper with her daughter-in-law Rezarta.
“Fasting when you’re housebound is harder because all you think about is eating,” she added with a smile, looking over an enticing spread of rice and meat, salads, roasted vegetables and dates.
After the iftar, Osman led his son and two grandsons, aged 11 and 13, in prayer in the living room.
Now a democracy, Albania has followed much of the world in severely curbing individual freedoms to combat the virus, which has claimed nearly 30 lives.
New technologies, however, are easing the loneliness.
Ahead of their meal, Osman’s family pulled out mobile phones to speak with their other relatives over video chats.
“Thanks to technology and social networks, virtually we are closer than ever to our friends,” said Agron.
His mother added: “The important thing is to be in good health, because we can still respect all the rites and religious practices in the family.”
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Shared experiences: Philippines, Libya eye stronger defense cooperation over Daesh

Updated 29 September 2020

Shared experiences: Philippines, Libya eye stronger defense cooperation over Daesh

  • Follows meeting between senior officials to discuss bilateral ties between two countries

MANILA: The Philippines and Libya are looking to explore opportunities for defense cooperation based on their “shared experiences” in fighting Daesh, the Philippines’ charge d’affaires and embassy head of mission in Tripoli, Elmer Cato, told Arab News.

“The Philippines and Libya could cooperate in such areas as counter-terrorism and intelligence sharing. We shared our experience fighting Daesh in Marawi and Sirte,” Cato said following his meeting with Libya’s Defense Minister Salahuddin Al-Nimroush on Sept. 21, referring in part to a five-month siege which pitted Filipino forces against Daesh-inspired militants, and the eight months of fighting to liberate Sirte from the group.

“In Sirte, a number of nurses were taken hostage by ISIS (Daesh) but later managed to escape. In Derna, four Filipino oil workers were taken and later executed, but their bodies have not yet been recovered. We continue to work with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in recovering the remains of our four countrymen,” he said.

He added, however, that the meeting — which included discussions on language training and military-to-military exchanges — was only “exploratory” and intended to see how the Philippines could expand ties “with one of our closest friends” in Africa.

“Cyberdefense was (also) brought up because the minister (Al-Nimroush) was an IT expert,” Cato said, before thanking him for giving the Philippine navy vessel BRP Gabriela Silang permission to enter Libyan waters and evacuate Filipinos “at the height of the fighting” in Tripoli earlier this year.

“We took the opportunity to express our appreciation to Libya for approving our request for the BRP Gabriela Silang to enter Libyan waters and dock in Tripoli, in case we needed to evacuate Filipinos,” he said.

Al-Nimroush expressed his appreciation for the Philippine’s continued presence in Tripoli through its embassy as “one of several countries that chose to keep their diplomatic missions open” and praised Filipino nurses and workers in the oil sector for their “important role” in Libya.

“The minister thanked us ... for being true friends of Libya. He said he and the Libyan people appreciated the fact that we kept our embassy in Tripoli open and allowed our people to continue caring for their sick and in helping them pump their oil. We told him that’s what friends are for,” Cato said.

He added that while Al-Nimroush “had been around Southeast Asia,” he never had the chance to visit the Philippines. 

“He told me ‘when I do get the chance to visit, I will go scuba diving in Palawano,’” Cato said.

The Philippines recently won the Best Overseas Diving Award 2020 during the 28th Marine Diving Fair held at the Sunshine City Convention Center in Tokyo, Japan. 

Cebu, Bohol, Moalboal, and Busuanga, all of which are teeming with whale sharks, snappers, dugong, and other exotic species, are some of the most popular diving sites in the Philippines.

Cato’s meeting with Al-Nimroush followed talks with Libyan Foreign Minister Faraj Abdelrahman Abumtary earlier this month, where the two discussed the state of Philippine-Libya relations and steps to strengthen bilateral ties. 

This was in addition to discussing the measures taken by Libyan authorities to ensure the well-being of more than 2,300 Filipinos residing in the country.