22.07.2011 - UNESCO Venice Office

Island of Peace: Documentary on Religious Coexistence in Albania

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Under the Joint Programme “Culture and Heritage for Social and Economic Development”, the Albanian Media Institute in Tirana, in collaboration with the television broadcaster Top Channel, finalized a documentary on interreligious living in Albania, entitled “Island of Peace”, in April 2011. This video seeks to raise awareness about Albania’s exceptional and continuous history of peaceful coexistence between four religious communities: Sunni Muslims, Bektashi Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and Catholic Christians. UNESCO now provides the full documentary for download in Albanian with English subtitles.

Watch the video: Island of Peace Part 1 [17:08] Part 2 [14:04]

The deeply rooted religious coexistence and tolerance among Albanians is a fact largely unknown to the international community. “Religious harmony”, says Zhulieta Harasani, UNESCO National Professional Officer in Albania, “is one of the country’s most precious assets and certainly one of the most serious contributions Albania can provide to the Alliance of Civilizations. This peaceful interreligious life represents an exemplary social model for countries within and beyond the Balkan region.” In line with the objectives of the Joint Programme, the documentary promotes diversity and open dialogue by drawing on Albania’s rich cultural history and making it accessible to national and international audiences.

The documentary begins with short interviews conducted in the streets of Tirana, asking passers-by whether they think of Albania as a country of religious harmony. A majority of respondents affirms this question, whereas some interviewees suspect that religious harmony may be a national myth rather than a reality. The documentary then turns to Albanian history, outlining the country’s Christian roots in the Byzantine Empire as well as its Muslim influences, entering Albania with the conquest of Shkodra by Sultan Mehmet Fatih in 1479. Albania’s national hero Gjergj Kastrioti-Scanderbeg is the very epitome of religious diversity: He was born an Orthodox, raised a Muslim, and died a Catholic. Today, he is still honored by all religious groups in the country. What makes Albania so unique in terms of religious coexistence is the fact that its religious communities not only live peacefully next to each other, but with each other. In the religious mosaic of Albania, mixed marriages are a taken-for-granted normality.

In the mountainous area of Shpati, the Christian and Muslim faiths are especially close. The inhabitants of Shpati were traditionally Christian, but adopted Muslim names during the era of the Ottoman Empire to avoid the heavy taxes imposed on Christians. Shpati thus provides a fascinating example of Crypto-Christianity, where the tradition of two parallel faiths (and giving both a Muslim and a Christian name to a newborn child) continued until the beginning of the 20th century. The documentary explains that the concept of Albania as one nation was always ascribed more importance that the concept of Albania as one religious community. In this interreligious melting pot, the common language, shared lifestyle and communal way of thinking played a more prominent role than common religious practice.

The documentary moreover comprises interviews with a number of representatives from religious institutions in Albania, including the Archbishop of Korça, the Imam of Shkrodra, and the Chief of International Relations at the World Bektashism Center. All delegates emphasize the importance and value of close official and personal relations between each other, which are institutionalized by an Inter-Religious Council. They also see great social responsibility in their role as setting an example of love and respect for one another. In the words of Imam Muhamed Sytari, Mufti of Shkrodra, “it is the duty of representatives of religious institutions, of the mufti, the bishop, the priest, to convey and disseminate this spirit in every way.” Close interreligious relations are seen as a gift, which must be preserved and passed on to the next generations.

The documentary sheds a fascinating light on religious coexistence in Albania. The country indeed resembles an “island of peace” where four religions live in harmony and where additional religious communities, such as Protestants and Jews, are welcome to settle and practice their faith. Perhaps the most extraordinary insight conveyed through the video relates to the personal friendships between Albanian clergymen. They visit each other, invite each other for dinner, celebrate together, and even play football together. Asked who won the last game, Dom Gjovalin Sukaj, Spokesman of the Archbishop of Shkodra, replies: ”The teams were mixed, priests and imams, everybody won.”

The MDG-F Joint Programme on ”Culture and Heritage for Social and Economic Development” is financed by the Spanish Fund for the Achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and is being implemented jointly by UNDP and UNESCO, in cooperation with the Albanian Ministry of Tourism, Culture, Youth and Sports, and the Albanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Link: Albanian Media Institute: http://www.institutemedia.org/

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