“May peace and justice once more reign in the Balkans”
An interview with Archbishop Anastasios of Albania
(published in with the daily Zri i Popullit (The Voice of the People), Tirana, May 1999)
How has the Orthodox Church of Albania reacted to the Kosovo crisis?
Since last year, to be exact 13th of March 1999, we have issued an appeal in Albanian and French in order to make the international community aware of the Kosovo crisis, underlining that “the Orthodox Church of Albania denounces the violations of human rights in Kosovo as well as anywhere in the world, and demands that these rights be respected as soon as possible. (…) Violence calls for more violence. Thus a vicious circle is created which has the innocent and the weak as its victims.
This is the point of view that we have maintained in our contacts with the representatives of foreign countries and during different international meetings on the issue. From the early autumn of 1998, when the number of Kosovo refugees had already reached 22,500 persons, our church has taken the initiative of turning the attention of other European churches on this situation, in order to enable us to provide aid to these populations. In this way, we have been able to assist more than one third of the refugees, offering packages of new clothing for children aged 4-14 and for women.
When the tragic conflict broke out, we immediately launched an appeal to all members churches of the World Council of Churches, to which the Orthodox Church of Albania belongs, requesting the release of further resources, and at the same time asked the support of friends all over the world. Their response has been generous.
Which humanitarian aid has the Orthodox Church of Albania exactly provided to Kosovars who had been expelled from their homes?
The appeal which I mentioned received an immediate response, and within 24 hours we collected a sum of 1,700,000 US dollars. With these funds we have been able to provide emergency humanitarian aid, food, clothing, etc. starting from the first days of April: 40 tonnes in Kuks, 34 tonnes in Korce and Pogradec. With the support of the Tirana city authorities, we have distributed bread and thousands of litres of milk in the Tirana area, in all 13 tonnes of food products, on Easter day. Thanks to the city authorities of Gjirokaster, Saranda and Delvin we have been able to distribute milk for children in these cities. In all, we have distributed 220 tonnes of food in different camps, municipalities and other structures hosting the refugees. We have organised the delivery of 1,000 tents, 2,800 beds with mattresses and 8,000 blankets.
Our Church has opened a refugee camp in Ndroq. We have offered our youth camp site in Skrofotine, near Vlore, for use by the Kosovars. The students of our theological institute, as well as numerous members of the Orthodox Youth Movement of Albania continue to assist refugees in the different camps. Our clinic in Tirana has provided large quantities of medications free of charge. The association of Orthodox women of Albania prepares and distributes packages for Kosovar families which are hosted in private apartments. At the present moment we have visited more than 400 such families. We pay particular attention to young mothers from Kosovo who have given birth during this period. A group of people who work for our church are taking care of them, having gathered products of first necessity for 63 young mothers. At the same time we are developing a further aid programme for the Kosovars estimated at 10 million US dollars. This programme will be executed by the Orthodox Church of Albania in co-operation with the World Council of Churches and “Action of Churches Together” (ACT).
What is the official reaction of the Church of Albania to the expulsion and ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo?
I have said before and I repeat that the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania denounces the violations of human rights in Kosovo and in any other region of the world, all the more so when the perpetrators of these violations go so far as to chase an entire people by force and to commit genocide. On the 29th of March 1999 the Holy Synod of the Church of Albania has discussed the matter and issued the following statement: “With all our heart we share the pain of those who suffer injustice and violence as a result of the Kosovo crisis. This extremely difficult situation can not be resolved by rhetorical and naive declarations. But, while we pray every day ‘for those who hate us and for those who love us,’ we humbly pray the God of truth and love to bring about a miracle and make peace and justice reign once more in our unstable region, as soon as is possible. We have already contributed, within the limits of our forces, to appease ease the sufferings of the Kosovars who have left their homes because of the conflict and have settled in Albania. And we will continue to work in this direction.” Violence, attacks and campaigns of ethnic cleansing which cause victims among innocent civilians are unacceptable, whatever the country or the pretext.
Is the attitude of the Church of Greece identical to that of the Church of Albania?
The Church of Albania is a direct participant in the great ordeal that the Kosovo crisis is. It is in the epicentre of the region where this tragedy has developed. The Church of Greece is geographically a bit further away, like most others Churches that follow the events in Kosovo as spectators, trusting information from different sources. These Churches do not have our experience in the matter. We try to help them understand the true dimension of the Kosovo drama and we continuously inform and raise the awareness of those who work with us to ease the suffering of the refugees. In this way we have received support from many dioceses and parishes all over the world as well as from different organisations and private persons.
As we have said, the Church of Albania has taken the initiative to contact several European and American Churches in order to save those who suffer, even if the majority of them traditionally belong to the Muslim community. Generally speaking, Orthodox theology always underscores the absolute value of the human person, indiscriminate of his race. We support human rights in general, and in particular the right of free development for each person, each people, each community, independently of religion or faith. Our teaching always insists of the necessity for peaceful coexistence. The Church of Albania has respected and widely preached these basic principles during the past years.
Do you share the idea that there is a latent conflict between Islam and Christianity in Kosovo, and that this conflict has become one of the cause of the war?
This point of view is completely wrong. Those responsible for this crisis have not acted in the name of a given religion. On the contrary, they have been raised and educated under a regime which had a deep contempt for religion. On the other hand, everyone knows that the vast majority of the NATO member countries belong the Christian tradition. It is very dangerous to exploit religious ideas and words in armed conflict. Any crime committed in the name of a religion is a crime against religion itself. Our Church insists that religion is like a “secret balm” which should not be used by just anyone or in order to spark armed conflict. This balm is a gift of God, given to soften hearts, to heal wounds and to help persons and peoples establish bonds of brotherhood among them.
What message would you convey to the people of Kosovo?
With all our heart we share the pains of all those who suffer injustice and violence as a result of the Kosovo tragedy, while being at the same time convinced that violence, hypocrisy and injustice shall be crushed and overcome by the power of God. During all this time we have been and we remain at their side, offering our sincere love and our concrete support in order to pass through this terrible ordeal with as little suffering as possible. We wish and we pray that a righteous and durable peace may reign in Kosovo and that the refugees may return to their homes as soon as possible.
How would you describe the relations between the Albanian government and the Orthodox Church of Albania since the outbreak of the conflict in Kosovo?
The relations between the Albanian government and the Orthodox Church are harmonious. The government — at least its Orthodox members — is well acquainted with the scope of the humanitarian work of the Orthodox Church in Albania. All those in public office know very well that the Orthodox Church is a major spiritual, cultural and social factor in Albanian society and at the same time an important representative of the country in the different international organisations to which it belongs.
How do you assess the relation among religions in Albania?
After a lengthy period of official atheism, we have achieved something very important for our different religious communities in Albania: peaceful co-existence, harmony and a sincere respect for one another. We absolutely have to preserve and develop this co-existence and not let it be destroyed by any forms of religious fundamentalism. The peaceful co-existence of the religious communities of Albania is an eloquent example of tolerance and acceptance of religious pluralism in a modern society, an example for the entire Balkan region.
How can the people of the Balkans co-exist in peace? Which contribution, in your view, can religion bring to this problem?
One has to understand that in the long run, the Balkans need peaceful co-existence and the acceptance of ethnic and religious diversity. What we ask is that, instead of being used as factors of conflict, differing religious conviction be considered as elements allowing us to build a creative form of co-existence in our societies.
The only chance for the region to live in peace is to install mutual respect among men, respect for the freedom of conscience of all without distinction of religion or faith, and respect for minority rights in every country. This asks for new initiative and creative thought. We have to widen our perspectives. First of all, all religious communities must turn to the very depth of their doctrine and to the best pages of their respective traditions in order to find the principles of a sacred anthropology which puts the emphasis on sincere respect for the whole human person. Subsequently, by the moral teaching of their leaders and by the behaviour of all their members, our communities must try and develop these principles and make them prevail in society.