Capital Prishtina
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 377 (Monaco); 381 (Serbia)
Mobile Codes 44
Currency Euro
Land Area 10,908 sq km
Population 1.8 million
Language Albanian, Serbian, Turkish
Major Religions Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism

The Vatican’s Growing Prominence in Kosovo

By Matteo Albertini in Milan

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In the three-plus years since the February 2008 declaration of independence in Kosovo – where over 90 percent of the population is at least nominally Muslim – the Vatican has sought to increase its presence, and now in more and more overt ways.

Despite the fact that barely 5 percent of Kosovo’s population is Catholic, the Vatican is now going beyond its initial activities (formerly limited to bolstering the existing presence of Catholicism), as it perceives a strategic interest in attempting to convert Kosovar Muslims. Although the Vatican is not alone in this pursuit (chiefly American Evangelical organizations, among other Christian and Muslim groups, are also found in Kosovo), it does constitute the single most powerful external religious institution active in the country.

The Holy See’s activities in Kosovo include increasing official personnel liaisons, erecting public buildings and operating religious educational institutions. Somewhat provocatively, these have included the construction of new schools in historically Islamic regions, like the southwestern region around Prizren, and proselytizing Muslims.

Symbolic Constructions

However, the most ambitious and expensive project to date has been the construction of a brand new Cathedral in Prishtina, dedicated to the “Blessed Mother Teresa,” the famous Catholic nun of Calcutta, who was born in neighboring Skopje, Macedonia, in an Albanian family. The Cathedral was inaugurated on September 5, 2010 by Kosovo’s former president, Fatmir Sejdiu; the day also marked the 13th anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa. Due to her worldwide prominence and relevance as a symbol of Catholicism, the late nun was put on the fast-track to sainthood, being beatified on October 19, 2003. (At present, she is one declared miracle away from becoming officially named as a saint).

At the inauguration, the president praised the building as a symbol of religious tolerance in the world’s newest country, which has been marked by a persisting struggle between Albanian Muslims and the Orthodox Serbian minority. In the past, this struggle has frequently involved attacks on religious structures, including vandalism of churches, mosques and cemeteries. However, Albanians of either Muslim or Catholic background have generally had good relations with each other due to a strong feeling of shared ethnic nationalism over religion.

Among the general population, the construction of the Prishtina cathedral has not only been accepted but encouraged: few Kosovo inhabitants seriously objected to the construction of the new cathedral of “Blessed Theresa of Calcutta,” even though it was built on an area previously suggested as a potential site for a new (and more needed) high school in Prishtina.

However, some protest has come from Muslim organizations, who have claimed that Catholics are benefiting from preferential treatment by the authorities, allegedly seeking to emphasis Kosovo’s links with the largely Christian EU.

Allies and Identities

To a certain extent, this is true: despite the relatively low percentage of Catholic Albanians in Kosovo, the government is looking to the Roman Catholic Church as a potential and powerful ally in its struggle to gain complete international recognition. The building of the Prishtina cathedral thus represents a gesture of gratitude for what significant actors from Catholic-majority countries have done for Kosovo in recent years.

However, it must also be remembered that religious faith has been for decades the principal way (along with language) by which contrasting Albanian and Serbian identities have been forged: being Orthodox has inevitably always meant being part of the Serbian ethnic group, while being Muslim has generally implied being Albanian. Disputes over religious sites and places of worship have been frequent during the war and the period of post-war international administration, and have by no means been cleared up in today’s Kosovo.

As Jahja Dracolli, professor of History at University of Prishtina pointed out in a recent interview, “religious places have always been part of shifting power balance between religions as well as ethnicities in these areas.” This is the reason why, as an example, Kosovo’s territory is studded with soldiers’ and refugees’ cemeteries: “we died here, this country is ours.”

Raising Rome’s Profile: A New Appointment

Although the Catholic minority of Kosovo comprises only around 5 percent of the population, in the last few years the Church has experienced a resurgence, and has registered an increasing number of conversions, in conjunction with renewed interest from the Holy See and its official members.

Evidence of this interest came two months ago, on February 10, when the Vatican commissioned for the first time an apostolic delegate to Kosovo: the present Nuncio in Slovenia, Juliusz Janusz. This decision seemed to indicate a primary change in Vatican diplomacy towards Kosovo: since 1999, the Holy See pursued a “low profile” position, aimed only at guaranteeing its presence in the few Catholic-inhabited areas, such as Gjakove in the west, or the surroundings of Prizren. This approach was in sharp contrast to the activist role the Vatican took in Slovenia and Croatia starting in January 1992.

Coherently with this resolution, the Holy See did not recognize the independence of Kosovo in 2008, and also did not send a diplomatic representative to the country. As Federico Lombardi, Director of Radio Vaticana, said on that occasion, “the unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo creates a new situation which obviously will be followed with great attention from the Holy See… But at this moment the Holy See feels first of all the responsibility of its moral and spiritual mission, concerning also peace and good behavior in relationship between nations.”

Vatican Diplomacy- Taking Considerations for the Serbian Orthodox Church

This position became necessary in order to not irritate the Serbian Orthodox Church, which is strongly opposed to the independence of Kosovo, as it would deprive Serbia of its more ancient monasteries (such as Dečani, Gračanica and the Peć Patriarchate).

More recently, in an interview with the Catholic news agency Kathpres on April 13, 2010, Cardinal Walter Kasper – president of the Council for the promotion of Christian unity – explicitly confirmed the position of the Catholic Church on Kosovo: “we, of course, know that Kosovo is a heavy wound and pain for the SPC [Serbian Orthodox Church]. We also know that it is the cradle and center of Serbian Orthodoxy in Kosovo. We understand that and wish to have consideration for it.”

Therefore, the nomination of a new apostolic delegate to Kosovo needed to be followed by a note clarifying that “the mission of an apostolic delegate is not of a diplomatic nature but it responds to the requirement to meet in an adequate way the pastoral needs of the Catholic faithful.” The note added that the appointment of Janusz does not mean a change of relations between the Holy See and the Kosovo state. This declaration was clearly directed to the Serbian Orthodox Church, in order not to compromise the sound relations between the two churches.

Meet the Nuncio

Juliusz Janusz, the newly appointed apostolic delegate for Kosovo, is currently serving as Papal Nuncio to Slovenia. Rather than as a specialist in Balkan matters, Monseigner Janusz might be described as the Vatican’s expert in complex situations.

On 25 March 1995, he was nominated Nuncio for Rwanda, where the Catholic hierarchy had been accused of protecting and helping war criminals. At the time, he repeatedly refused to consider persecuting – or even discuss – the responsibilities of many bishops alleged to have endorsed massacres against the Tutsi during the civil war in Rwanda. Later, on 26 September 1998, Monsignor Janusz was appointed as Nuncio for Mozambique- a key country in the diplomacy of the Holy See.

In Mozambique, the negotiations between the socialist Frelimo party and anti-communist Renamo party (supported by Rhodesia and South Africa), were conducted with the central mediation of the Community of Saint Egidio, an official Catholic community. Nuncio Janusz has long worked with the Community of Saint Egidio, which has extensive operations in Kosovo. In general, he is considered to be a great diplomat, and has certainly acquired experience confronting more difficult situations than Kosovo should prove to be.

The Target Market- Kosovar Muslims

Excepting for the concern to not inflame Serbian Orthodox feelings, the interests of the Holy See in Kosovo are at present directed less at the Serbian minority than at the country’s Muslims. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI launched his campaign to “find the Christian roots of Europe,” starting a wider project of evangelization.

Since then, the ethnic Albanian Catholic bishop of Kosovo, Dodë Gjergji, has concentrated mainly on conversion of Muslims to the Catholic faith. During a convention of the European Democratic Party in Brussels in April 2008, Gjergji stated that as Kosovo is increasingly looking to the European Union and the Vatican for support against Serbia, there is a need for a new “cultural baptism” of the county.

Previous to his promotion to the status of bishop, the Kosovo-born Gjergji had served as the Apostolic Administrator of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sapë in neighboring Albania, from 2000-2005. The following year he was named bishop of the Diocese of Prizren in Kosovo. Interestingly, the bishop had earlier begun his career in the priesthood in Skopje, Macedonia during the late Yugoslav period in 1989.

Conversion Trends

The absence of a multinational Muslim hierarchy of similar strength, along with the substantial laity of Kosovar Islam, might allow the Catholic Church to “occupy” some sectors of social and cultural life in which the state is highly deficient: these include social assistance, education, and communitarian events.

The resurgence of Catholic organizations and schools in Kosovo is often justified by the renewing of a well-known tradition among Albanians, usually referred to as “Christians in hiding” or “Crypto-Christian” or, in the Albanian language, laraman (meaning “two-colored”). The indication meant is that the people thus referenced converted to Islam centuries ago because of the advantages granted by being Muslim in the Turkish millet system of governance, but maintained non-Islamic practices at home.

In an interview for The Economist published on December 30, 2008, Dracolli underlined that “religion has always been secondary” to being Albanian: he said that converts want to “return to the old religion they believed they had” to demonstrate they are part of “the Euro-American trend.”

Although arguable – the fact that Albanian were Catholic five centuries ago does not explain why their descendants would decide to go back from the Islamic to the Catholic faith – this consideration resembles the justification frequently made by new converts. As recalled in a Reuters report from September 28, 2008, and discussed independently in a previous field report, many Albanian converts said that they had chosen the Catholic faith because Western countries do not like Muslims, while they also seek support, protection and investments from the West.

This is a crucial point in the willingness of converting, and shows how the “crypto-catholic” route is partly an “invented tradition”- good for justifying the need of an “identity baptism” more than a “cultural baptism.”

The boost of conversions enjoyed by the Catholic Church in today’s Kosovo is however not just dependant on the possibility of becoming part of a “Western” world, or a member of a religious family seen to be less disliked than Islam; it but can show the efficiency and the capillarity of the social-humanitarian Catholic machine.

Seeking help for their economic and social problems, Muslim families have sometimes found no aid from the Islamic communities (some of them blamed as “extremist” or “fundamentalist”)- and were forced to turn towards Catholic organizations. Through them they have received help, and accepted to convert to Catholicism because that religion could answer basic needs, ranging from health and hygiene to education.

From this point of view, conversions in Kosovo show as religion can be primarily a rational or economic choice, and not just a cultural/symbolic one. However, there’s more beneath the surface: as pointed out by a recent article from Avvenire, an Italian, Catholic-oriented newspaper, relations between Catholic and Muslim in everyday life are not as smooth as they might seem at official levels: for one example, inter-faith marriages are still deeply reprimanded in many families. Thus, the increasing rate of conversions to the Catholic faith could lead to deeper struggles inside Kosovar society in the future.

The Vatican in Kosovo: A More Active Role in Future?

Indeed, an increasing tendency towards attempting conversions will guarantee that the Catholic Church, and thus the Vatican, will have a deeper involvement in Kosovo affairs, with all of the implications this entails.

The Vatican’s readiness to take a role was formally expressed by the appointment of Nuncio Janusz as apostolic delegate: even if it is not a proper diplomatic recognition, it shows the growing interest of the Vatican towards Kosovo, which may lead, in the not-so-distant future, to a significant change in behavior between the Holy See and the Kosovo government.

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