Kosovo: New cathedral symbolises Catholic rebirth

world | Sep 13, 2007 | By Refki Alija and Aleksandar Vasovic

Josip Palokaj is leaving mass, rosary in hand, from the old Cathedral of the Virgin in Prizren, a city in southern Kosovo that for centuries has been the heartland of the Catholic faith in this mainly Muslim land.

He says he feels comfortable in Kosovo, though ethnic Albanian Catholics make up only five per cent of the roughly 2 million population.

“As a member of a Catholic congregation I never had a single problem in Muslim-dominated Kosovo,” he maintains.

In Prizren, “we hear bells from our church and the imam’s call for prayer from the nearby mosque. No one bothers.”

Far from being marginalized – as is the story in so many mainly Muslim societies - in Kosovo the small Catholic minority has seen a resurgence in its fortunes as Kosovars of all faiths look to Europe to resolve their political destiny.

One sign of their new-found confidence is the construction of a cathedral in the capital, Pristina. It is to be named after Mother Teresa of Calcutta, perhaps the world’s best-known Albanian in recent history, who was beatified by the late Pope John Paul II.

“The Cathedral will be an object that will present our values, identity and our feelings” said Kosovo’s President Fatmir Sejdiu on September 5, when the building work began.

The foundations for Pristina’s future cathedral were laid by the late Kosovo president, Ibrahim Rugova, himself of Muslim origin.

When construction is complete, the headquarters of the Catholic Bishop of Kosovo will move from Prizren to Pristina – a symbolic move by the Church to the centre of Kosovo’s political and social life.

Not all the population has watched these events unfold with delight. Some non-Catholics are annoyed by the fact that the cathedral is to be built in place of a high school, while devout Muslims have been irritated that the go-ahead came after the province’s Muslim majority was denied permission to build an Islamic centre in Pristina. In spite of that, most of the population broadly welcomes the development.

Catholicism has ancient roots in Albania. The former Roman province of Illyria was one the first territories into which Christianity spread from Italy.

Most Albanians converted to Catholicism and the Albanian hero, Skanderbeg, was one of the great heroes of 15th century Europe for his staunch defence of Christian Albania from the invading Turks.

But after the Ottoman Turks conquered the Balkans, Albanians steadily shifted their religious orientation towards the new dominant faith, and a large proportion of the country converted to Islam.

Muslims enjoyed a privileged status in the Ottoman Empire. The main benefit was lower taxation on land and produce. As a result, conversion was more successful in the more agriculturally developed areas.

Large swathes of poorer, more mountainous territory in the north of Albania proper, where the reach of the Ottoman authorities was weaker, remained Catholic. Overall, Catholics remain far more numerous in Albania than in Kosovo.

Today, most Catholics in Kosovo live in Klina, Gjakove/Djakovica, Prizren, Viti and Pristina, where they are rallied by two key parties, the Albanian Christian Democrats and the Christian Democrats of Kosovo.

But Catholics belong to all major parties. The Kosovo parliament speaker, Kole Berisha, a member of the ruling Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, is the top-ranking Albanian Catholic while Tome Hajdari of the Dardania Democratic League is leading the ministry of agriculture as deputy minister after Kosovo Serbs failed to put forward a candidate.

Kosovo Catholics are deeply aware of the problems concerning the province’s future status and are convinced that Kosovo’s chances of independence rest on support from the United States and other Western powers, including the Vatican.

Kole Berisha has visited the Holy See several times whilst Kosovo's Catholic Bishop, Dode Gjergji, told Balkan Insig


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