Archbishop rejects any ‘clash of civilizations’

Anastasios, head of the Orthodox Church of Albania, stresses the importance of interfaith dialogue and friendly relations with Islam

‘I believe dialogue is better than silence, which only cultivates suspicion, and often hate. There has to be a careful study of the real... principles both of Islam and of Christian ity, in order to help cultivate a more widespread climate of moderation among the followers of different religions in the Balkans.’

Interview by Stavros Tzimas

(“Kathimerini”, October 23, 2001)

Religion should not get caught up in the cogs of terrorism, said Archbishop Anastasios of Albania in an interview with Kathimerini, stressing the responsibilities of Western societies in the context of the new global conditions. The head of Albania’s Greek Orthodox Church also spoke of Orthodoxy’s “friendly relations” with Islam in Albania, which he characterized as “moderate.” Anastasios rejected the suggested that religious differences have been at the heart of the bloody civil conflicts in the Balkans.

The Taleban and fanatical mullahs are exhorting Muslims to wage a war against the infidels. Is this stance characteristic of Islam?

It is obvious that some Muslims, in this highly complex conflict, are trying to exploit religious convictions by using slogans from the Koran. They are resorting to calls for a holy war to defend Islam and for the glory of Allah. Religious fanaticism is like a forest fire in a strong wind. Yet there is not one, unified Islam, just as there is no united Christian Church. In the Islamic world, many responsible voices are also being heard in favor of moderation. Recently, a meeting characterized as a “Muslim and Christian summit” was organized in Rome by the St. Egidio community on October 3-4 with the full support of the Italian civil authorities. Many distinguished Muslim intellectuals and leaders with a great influence in the Muslim world unequivocally condemned terrorism and emphasized that this can in no way be considered a jihad, a holy war.

At the same time, however, they all called for a condemnation of the different forms of terrorism in other conflicts, and drew particular attention to the need for a resolution of the Palestinian problem.

In your opinion, is there a religious aspect to the terrorist attack on the USA?

I don’t believe the recent terrorist strike in New York was carried out for purely religious reasons, that Muslims wanted to punish Christians for having the wrong religion, for believing in Christ and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. They did not destroy cathedrals or other religious symbols. They know very well that in the West there is no homogeneous Christianity. In the towers of the World Trade Center, there were people of all religious persuasions and even many Muslims.

Symbolic elements

However, there were religious motives as well. Interesting religious symbols appeared throughout the entire design and execution of the plan. The Twin Towers were, first of all, the center of economic life — perhaps in the language of the most fanatical believers, the temple to the new idolatry of money. The other target was the Pentagon, headquarters of the military power that reigns supreme in the world. From objects that were found belonging to the perpetrators of the strikes, it appears that apart from the purely technical preparations, there was also a serious religious preparation that contributed to the complete control of the minds of the people who undertook the operation with such religious zeal. It is possible that the pilots who flew the aircraft into the towers did not care if their actions were about to create a hell on Earth - they were happy because they would go straight to heaven. Religious thought has its own labyrinths and indeterminate forces that have the power of nuclear explosions.

Do you think that the war against terrorism will turn into a clash of civilizations and religions? In your opinion, is there any basis for such a conflict?

Everything is both possible and impossible in human history. Who could have imagined the events of September 11? Nevertheless, things don’t happen by themselves. We all have to do what we can to prevent these things from happening. Terrorism cannot be representative of any civilization. It is a negation of civilization and a return to the law of the jungle. We cannot allow religion to become caught up in the cogs of terrorism. Terrorism was not invented to support the claims of the believers of one religion or another. The essence of religion has to be protected in every way possible. Religious experience opens the mind and the heart to the eternal, revealing a person’s spiritual potential and leading him to communion with the sacred, with God, in a relationship of respect and love for one’s fellow human beings. Woe betide us if it becomes distorted and a vehicle for hate. We Christians cannot find any basis in the Gospel to support such a conflict. Even in the Islamic world, as we have seen, there are many clear-headed people who will most certainly oppose the exploitation of Islamic zeal by extremist Muslim leaders who are bent on a clash between civilizations.

Awakening consciences

Generally, our attention should not be wholly taken up with the recent terrorist strikes and counterattacks. It is time that our consciences woke from sleep and looked at the problem of terrorism as it is developing around the world. Most people have completely forgotten, if they ever even noticed, that apart from these latest strikes, there are 40 other conflicts going on in the world. Western societies with political, scientific and military power have a duty to engage in self-criticism and to realize their responsibilities in the context of these new world conditions. The peace and security everyone is talking about can only be secured through social justice and development for the Earth’s poorer societies. It would be terrible — spiritually, politically, strategically — out of negligence or arrogance, to allow a new, composite “proletariat” to emerge, which will try to impose its will violently, exploiting the spiritual, individual energy of religion.

You are practicing your religion in a country where Muslims considerably outnumber Christians, both Orthodox and Catholic. What are relations like between Christians and Muslims in Albania and in other areas of the Balkans? What is your own experience?

There are no precise figures on how many Muslims or Christians there are in Albania today. The figures are drawn from pre–1940 statistics. In the most recent census, the government refused to ask people their religion.

Until 1990, the communist system prevailed throughout the Balkans. Religion in many cases was in decline, as in Albania. There was half a century of atheistic public education, now there are groups that are indifferent to religion, or irreligious (I prefer this word to “atheist”). They don’t have any particular structure, but they represent a considerable sector of the population in the Balkans. So when we talk about the role of religion in this region, we have to take into serious consideration not only the dynamics of traditional religious communities but the fact that a large percentage of the people, to a varying degree from one country to another, does not wish to belong to any particular religion. In Albania, there was always a tradition of religious tolerance and in many cases the members of large families belonged to different religious communities. There are also mixed marriages, which were encouraged during the rule of Enver Hoxha.

After religious freedom was introduced, there was a revival of the religious communities. Many Muslims from various countries have arrived in Albania over the past decade (reportedly about 1,000 of them). They have a lot of money and many of them have fundamentalist tendencies. However, I don’t think a decade is long enough to create a hardline Islam. On the contrary, Islam in Albania is moderate.

Friendly relations

From the outset, we developed friendly relations with the heads of all the other religious communities. We have always supported not only religious tolerance but cooperation. We attend all the celebrations of the other religious communities, and they attend ours. It is not simply a formality. We have genuinely cultivated friendly relations and, above all, a substantial dialogue. We have emphasized that in Albania there should be a model of religious coexistence for the Balkans.

In the Balkans, after the fall of the Socialist bloc, there were four wars — in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. What role did religion play in those bloody conflicts?

Many tragic things happened in the former Yugoslavia due to decisions on the part of certain people, which usually had nothing to do with religion. Religious differences were used to support political and ethnic positions. Religion had long divided a population that had a common origin and language into three groups.

Even those who had once declared themselves against religion declared themselves defenders of their traditional faith. In Kosovo and Tetovo, the Albanians rallied within the Muslim community, but they do not appear to have become consciously religious. Generally, I believe that it is incorrect to blame religions for the mistakes and tragedies of leaders who have been raised in an atheistic system of education, even if they later wanted the support of religious groups.

When hundreds of thousands of refugees flooded into poor Albania, the Orthodox Church hastened to help them without asking them their religion, or rather recognizing that most of them were Muslims. Mobilizing mostly young people and women, we gathered over $12 million and developed a program of welfare that gave relief to over 30,000 people. This stance, apart from the immediate assistance we gave to thousands of exhausted people, was a symbolic gesture for the present and the future.

Dialogue with everyone

Last June, at the initiative of the World Council of Churches, I chaired a meeting of representatives of all religious groups in FYROM in Morges, Switzerland. The joint communique issued afterward emphasized that “peace is also the responsibility of the churches and religious communities”. We absolutely believe that answers to problems should always be sought by means of an open dialogue based on mutual respect, as well as respect for differences and values of other religions.

I know that you often participate in meetings of different religions, declaring the need for dialogue and understanding. In September you went to Barcelona and Sarajevo, in October you were in Rome. Are these initiatives effective in any practical sense?

I think they help to overcome misunderstandings, promote a sober religious awareness, an exchange of views and criticism so that we can understand the concerns, the positions and the arguments of others. Generally, I believe that dialogue is preferable to silence, which only cultivates suspicion, and often hate. In addition, the declarations issued after these meetings promote understanding. Ideas have their own long–term effect and dynamics. They can also help in self–criticism. Usually, leaders and intellectuals in various religious communities tend to act as advocates for their communities in international circles. That is only natural and desirable, but when we go home, we have to exercise criticism within our own communities, to help them acquire respect for the differences and the struggles of people with different religious beliefs.

In order to cultivate a more widespread climate of moderation between different religious groups in the Balkans, there has to be a careful study of the essential principles both of Islam and Christianity. Each religious community should develop what is best in it, in order to approach society. If religious communities move toward a broader commonwealth of peace and solidarity that will guarantee justice and human dignity for every person, every minority, every nation, we will be heading for a truly human civilization.

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