The Words of the Rexhepi Family
Korça, Albania -- Following its annual plan, the Local Peace Council in Korca, a city in southeast Albania near the borders of Greece and Macedonia, commemorated World Interfaith Harmony Week on February 7. Although the weather was very cold and it was snowing heavily, the theme of "Interfaith Harmony and Korça Contribution" attracted participants and gained media attention.
It was beautiful to see young students and key Ambassadors for Peace fill a rather small hall at Korça State University. The program, moderated by the respected Ambassador for Peace Mr. Dionis Kotmilo, included words of greetings from all faiths and in-depth reports about local interfaith issues. Among those present were Father Edmond Brahimaj (World Leader of the Bektashi Order, a Sufi Muslim order), the Mufti of Korça, the Orthodox Church representative, the imam of Mitrovica (Kosovo Republic), the Rector of Korca State University, the prefect of the Korça region, leaders of the Local Peace Council, and Ambassadors for Peace. To support the event a delegation from the UPF-Tirana Peace Council arrived on time for the 11:00 opening of the program.
After the remarks of rector Gjergji Merko, there was a message from the prefect of Korça, Mr. Andrea Mano, who said that this conference was an important opportunity to convey the messages of love and peace: "I believe there are two virtues that made it possible for many religions to coexist and flourish in Albania: (1) We are a people who believe (in God). Faith is most important in life. It does not matter which religion you belong to, because when people believe they are always better people and offer something more to society. (2) Interfaith harmony enabled us to survive as a nation and gain independence. Religious people helped unify the nation and played a vital role in its independence."
In his speech, Dr. Niko Faber (Local Peace Council Chairman) said that even though Albanians are proud of being a multifaith people, none of the religious communities has yet claimed the central role in the country, although statistics show the supremacy of one (the majority of Albanians are Muslims). He credited not only the merit of the respective communities but also their wise leadership. He reviewed 100 years of Albanian independence and said that inter-religious relations have progressively improved. "Starting with the nationalist movement in the 19th century and continuing throughout the Second World War, the people of Korça have united under the goal of national freedom. After the War, the communists decided that Albania should be the first atheist country in the world and stopped all religious activities for 23 years. Although the effects were mainly negative, this decision brought people closer, and religious affiliation was not a dividing factor. Inter-religious marriages and common graveyards became common. The transition to democracy reestablished the right of religion and continued the good tradition of interfaith harmony in the region of Korça. For example, it has been traditional to celebrate and acknowledge all religious holy days as well as bless the national flag on Independence Day each year. During the Kosovo crises in 1999, the people of Korca hosted about a thousand Kosovars, mainly ethnic Albanians of Muslim background. However, we should be alert about any fundamentalist efforts, radicalism or divisive leadership from religious communities. The government should restore properties. We should pass on this beautiful spiritual tradition to Kosovo and Macedonia, whose populations are similar to ours."
After a short introduction to Islam, Imam Rexhep Luzha from Kosovo said that the effects of religious intolerance were seen during the Kosovo War of 1999-2000, when more than 200 mosques were destroyed by the Serbian army. "However, after the war the Kosovo Muslims did not exact revenge on the Orthodox churches but protected them, including the church of Decan, the monastery of Sokolica in Mitrovicë, etc." Mr. Luzha gave other vivid examples of interfaith cooperation by his community with other communities as evidence of the true desire for religious tolerance from his side.
"The best example of interfaith is Jesus Christ himself," said Mr. Vangjel Panolli from the Orthodox Church of Korça. "He did not come to save the orthodox or catholic Christians. He even preached and met with Israelites, Samaritans, and Gentiles. The whole holy law is included in the commandment to 'love God and love your neighbor.' Neighbor means not only your family but whoever stands before or beside you; neighbor transcends cultural, ethnic, and religious barriers. Discussions about interfaith cooperation are generally limited to inter-religious tolerance and harmony, but such concepts cripple us when we are confronted with what Christ taught: God is love and we should live in love with 'our neighbor' so we can resemble His image."
Mr. Elfrida Zefi, Dean of the Economics and Business Faculty, presented a short report of his research on interfaith harmony focusing on the publishing of an edition of the Qur'an in Albanian by an Orthodox man (Ilo M. Qafëzezi) in 1921, when it had not yet been done even in the Turkish language. Mrs. Klara Cela, Ambassador for Peace and head of a local NGO, emphasized the role of civil society in promoting interfaith harmony. Mr. Ardian Matka, lecturer in the History and Social Sciences Department, presented his research on "Elements of Inter-religious Tolerance in the Korca Region."
At the end, Mr. Sokol Rexhepi, Secretary General of UPF-Albania, said that "with this event Korça is joining a global community in commemorating World Interfaith Harmony Week." He emphasized UPF's commitment to interfaith dialogue and praised the Local Peace Council for taking the initiative to hold the symposium.
The event was covered by the local media and reported on the evening TV news. It was a milestone for UPF-Albania and a unique event in Albania.