By Christopher Deliso
When Kosovo’s Albanians celebrated the major Muslim holiday of Bajram, at the end of September, more than a few worshippers were conspicuous for their absence.
A trickle of media articles over the past few months have dealt with the issue of religion in Kosovo from a relatively unreported angle: the curious phenomenon of conversion. Apparently, Albanians in this Muslim-majority statelet have been increasingly ‘returning’ to the Catholic religion, which their ancestors had forsaken centuries ago.
This story is interesting and relevant in its own right, but has become particularly revealing in light of the way it has been developed in the media, something that raises another set of issues. Whereas early reports of a new trend towards conversion mentioned the fact that Albanians had been Christians before the Ottomans arrived in the 14th century, and converted thereafter, only recently have reports begun adding an element of victimology to the narrative.
For example, a Sept. 28 Reuters report that took the pulse of recently reborn Catholics in Kosovo claimed that ‘…the majority of ethnic Albanians were forcibly converted to Islam, mostly through the imposition of high taxes on Catholics, when the Ottoman Empire ruled the Balkans.’ This almost seems to imply that other Christians were threatened with taxation by the Turks, but did not convert. It also ignores that in several places at different times, Christians seeking to convert were actually prevented from doing so because the Ottomans prudently sought they would lose a local tax base for relatively little in return.
Reuters’ description of ‘forcible conversion’ as something to be equated with desire for social advancement is a strange one.
The real things that were forcible for the Ottomans were the forced kidnappings of young Christian men and women for the janissary corps and harems of Constantinople. Although there were far worse things to be suffered than paying high taxes by remaining Christian under the Turks, these were left out. In backwards hinterlands of the empire, as in Kosovo and Bosnia, the local Muslim lords were known for being especially pernicious towards those who did not desert their religion.
Although this disparity led to simmering resentments which had long-term influence, as pointed out by former NSA officer John Schindler in the Bosnian context, the article does not consider how inter-ethnic problems in Kosovo today might perhaps have roots in this phenomenon. Schindler notes that it was particularly in border hinterlands of the empire such as Bosnia and Kosovo that the rule of the Turks and converted local lords allegiant to them was especially vicious. The Orthodox Christian Serbs clung to their religion- and suffered under the rule of those who found it expedient to change their own. Understanding the context of local opinions today requires an appreciation of this former relationship.
Within the Albanian community itself, how is the conversion issue playing out?
The Kosovars interviewed by Reuters tended to take the ‘crypto-Christian’ route, by which they claimed that their forefathers only pretended to be Muslims: “…for centuries, many remembered their Christian roots and lived as what they call ‘Catholics in hiding.’ Some, nearly a century after the Ottomans left the Balkans, now see the chance to reveal their true beliefs.”
The timing is indeed quite impeccable. Yet the experiences of this reporter indicate perhaps another motivation at work. In April, our team visited precisely the same church in Klina where the Reuters piece starts off at with the Sopi family (perhaps related to the famous, deceased Albanian bishop of that name?) However, speaking informally with young Albanians outside the church, a very different concept emerged. As one 20-year-old student put it: “we know that the West does not like Muslims and is against Islam. It is better for us to be Christians again.”
In Pristina, inside a small Catholic church, the caretaker informed us that some 21 people had come in the previous three months to re-embrace the faith; more were expected to emerge. As the Reuters article points out, a large Catholic cathedral is being built here, much to the displeasure of Muslim leaders. The article quotes the head of the Kosovo Islamic community, Mufti Naim Ternava, who is opposed to the building of the new cathedral at the heart of Pristina, as criticizing rural church-building as well: “…no human brain can understand how a church should be build in the middle of 13 Muslim villages,” he said.
Supporters of Kosovar Catholicism inevitably point to Mother Teresa, born in nearby Skopje, who has became the symbol of Albanian Christianity far and wide, a cultural process that has brought criticism from Muslim groups in Albania itself. Recent examples of some of these animosities are discussed in my book The Coming Balkan Caliphate: The Threat of Radical Islam to Europe and the West (Praeger Security International, 2007), in which I maintain that, in Kosovo the end of the nationalist question (i.e., with the achievement of statehood) is the beginning of the religious one.
Link (here) to the full article.