By Victor Gaetan
PRISTINA, Kosovo (CNS) – Although armed conflict in Kosovo ended nearly a decade ago, the capital city still feels like a place hit recently by war or natural disaster.
Electricity goes out often, water is strictly rationed, United Nations jeeps are ubiquitous and people look harried.
Along the main road leading to Pristina, every other lot is full of old cars, stolen from other European countries and picked clean or abandoned by families who fled the war.
But during Sunday Masses at the Church of St Anthony of Padua, an active Catholic community packs the pews. There are families and old people, a full-voiced choir, eight young altar servers and long lines to receive the Eucharist.
The church, located in a working-class neighborhood, was built in the 1960s after the communist regime demolished the Catholic cathedral in the city’s centre.
“We are small but very alive. Children from every grade are in catechism (classes),” said Fr Albert Jakaj, 30, whose identical twin is a priest in Montenegro. “People are coming back to their old faith. We have whole families coming back to their roots.”
The priest described a small village where 10 families came to him asking to receive the sacraments: “They want to be back with their traditional faith. It’s not conversion but a strong returning.”
Kosovar Albanians “have lived through a national crisis that centred on national identity as well as on religious identity. But our Catholic roots are very old,” he said.
During the Communist period, Kosovo was an autonomous region of the Yugoslav republic of Serbia. Serbians claimed control over Kosovo although more than 90 percent of its citizens were ethnic Albanian Muslims who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule, but a sizeable minority of Kosovar Albanians remained Catholic.
Following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Albanian Muslims and Catholics often worked together against Serb control, which was associated with the Serbian Orthodox Church.
In 1999, NATO bombed Serbia to convince it to relinquish control of Kosovo to the United Nations. In February 2008, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia.
Today, Kosovo’s Catholic population is approximately 65,000 in a country with roughly two million people. Another 60,000 Kosovar Catholics are outside the country, mainly for work. The Catholic community tries to share its values while building positive relations with other communities. One way it does this is through schools.
The Loyola-Gymnasium Prizren, which opened in 2005, has 600 students, more than 80 percent from Muslim backgrounds. Its executive director is German Jesuit Father Walter Happel, but Loyola does not offer religion classes.
Pal Bala, legal adviser at Loyola and a parishioner at St Anthony’s Church, said: “Everyone sees the difference between our school and secular schools or other religious schools right away. We promote equal education for boys and girls. We promote respect, love and justice. We have Franciscan nuns at the school working side by side with lay staff. And we have high standards that promote meritocracy among students.
“As Catholics, we demonstrate our values within the community. Through this kind of work, we convince people about the rightness of our beliefs,” Bala said.
Evidence of the Catholic Church’s confidence in its future is reflected in plans to construct a new Pristina cathedral, named after Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, an ethnic Albanian. The current and former presidents of Kosovo, both Muslims, have publicly supported the plan.
Monsignor Shan Zefi, chancellor of the Prizren-based Catholic apostolic administration, noted that the Catholic Church was well-represented in the Kosovo government. “There’s no doubt the government sees us as an asset and source of hope, since we represent a link with Western democratic values,” he said.
Mgr Zefi noted that “some Muslim clergy appear unhappy about the current wave of baptisms. But they know the converts weren’t proper Muslims and must be free to make their own choices.
“Our relations with the Islamic community are better than with the nationalistic Orthodox church,” he said, noting that the Catholic Church hopes to play a mediating role between Muslims and Orthodox.
Most Catholic Kosovars say they have had positive relations with their Muslim neighbours for years. “My father is Muslim and his parents, going back, maintain a combination of Muslim and Christian practices. They are known as ‘crypto-Catholics’ because, although the men go to the mosque on Fridays, the family follows Christian principles at home. Children are baptised at home. Sunday is considered holy. My paternal grandparents lit candles for Christian holy days,” said St Anthony’s parishioner Mihane Nartile Salihu.
“In the morning, my father and his family say prayers in Arabic, but at night, they say the Our Father and Hail Mary in Albanian,” Salihu said. “Like Christians, the whole family eats together… while in strict Muslim homes, men and women eat separately.”
“This double identity developed under Ottoman rule because as a Christian you suffered ostracism and higher taxes, but calling yourself a Muslim had a lot of advantages, so many people declared themselves to tax collectors as Muslims but kept Catholic tradition at home,” she said.
Fr Jakaj said this cultural history contributes to more understanding between the religious groups and makes the process of revitalising the Church a matter of recovering latent identity.