Interreligious dialogue in Albania

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For the next few months at least, most of my research project is going to revolve around doing little more than listening. In many ways this is a lot of fun for me; I loved hearing people’s thoughts on politics and religion while I was in the Peace Corps, but I didn’t often have the opportunity to sit someone (or a group of people) down and torment them with question after question about their culture. With the discussion groups I’m planning for Macedonia (already scheduled in Struga and Skopje, and hopefully soon in a few other cities), and later for Albania, I’ll be able to take on the role of interviewer/note-taker in a way I was never able to while in the Peace Corps.

This morning I headed to Elbasan to speak with a local religious leader, a Catholic man who runs an organization focused on interreligious dialogue. This was the sort of group I always wanted to see in Macedonia; it’s more complex than religion vs. religion over there, because religious issues are so tied up with Albanian and Macedonian national identities within the country, but these conversations between people of different faiths have felt necessary to me ever since I went through Peace Corps training in Macedonia, and got a glimpse at how little some Macedonians and Albanians interact with each other. Because it’s a three-hour round trip from Tirana and Elbansa, I usually try to plan a full day’s worth of coffees when I head there, but today tried to keep things short because I’m getting over a cold I caught in Kosovo (and mostly want to sleep).

I spent about an hour and a half speaking with Sokol. As someone who proclaims her atheism pretty publicly (though usually not with Albanians or Macedonians; not even now that I live in a country that is largely atheistic after religion was banned under Enver Hoxha’s rule), I tend to look at religion from a purely cultural rather than spiritual perspective, so it’s interesting to hear about local religions from someone who is coming from a different position, in terms of belief. Sokol’s organization has run a symposium at the local university featuring leaders of different faiths, and taken a group of women of different faiths on a trip to view religious sites; in future, he hopes to publish a pamphlet featuring writings by a number of religious leaders, and to expand the organization into some of the towns surrounding Elbasan.

Again, a lot of fun to hear about religion from a person living in Albania, who was alive during Hoxha’s rule, rather than to simply read about religion from a history book or newspaper article. Albania is often recognized today as a state that does unusually well in terms of interreligious dialogue and cooperation, which I’ve suspected is in part because for many people, who for years could not practice, religion is more a cultural than a spiritual concern. Sokol’s take is that while communication between people of different religions is better in Albania than in many other states, there are still ways it needs to be improved. For example, he said: people don’t often really discuss religion, beyond stating what their family’s religion is; marriage between people of different religions is still limited; and when people of different religions do marry the result is often that one of them leaves her religion behind. He also affirmed what I had thought about this cultural vs. spiritual view of religion, saying that many Albanians today are religious “in their heads, not their hearts.”

I’m hoping to set up this type of interview with other religious leaders while I’m in Albania, so that by the end of my Fulbright grant I’ve had the chance to discuss Albanian identity and religion with students, with religious leaders, and with historians. This morning’s meeting was a great way to start things off. Also, next time I go to Elbasan (or anywhere else in Albania or Macedonia) I’ll take some photos to include with the blog. My excuse for not doing so today is that my nose was running, I wanted to take a nap, and there was a furgon just about to leave for Tirana when I finished my meeting.

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