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NEWS STORY: Muslims Rebuilding Mosques, Building Faith in Kosovo

c. 2000 Religion News Service PRISTINA, Yugoslavia _ Kosovo’s Muslim leaders here are tackling the enormous task of repairing nearly half the region’s mosques and educating an Islamic public largely ignorant of its faith. If the leaders of Kosovo’s overwhelmingly dominant faith succeed, they may well create what one religion expert here believes will be […]

c. 2000 Religion News Service

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia _ Kosovo’s Muslim leaders here are tackling the enormous task of repairing nearly half the region’s mosques and educating an Islamic public largely ignorant of its faith.

If the leaders of Kosovo’s overwhelmingly dominant faith succeed, they may well create what one religion expert here believes will be Europe’s “second Muslim state” after neighboring Albania.

Indeed, Kosovo’s Grand Mufti, Rexhep Boja, the Muslims’ spiritual head who has carefully avoided politics, is adamant on one political question: whether Kosovo will someday be rejoined with predominantly Orthodox Serbia.

“The people will not accept it. I won’t either,” said Boja, 54, in an interview in his office at the Islamic Faculty here. “After what happened, we can just cannot accept it.”

Kosovo remains part of Serb-dominated Yugoslavia under the terms of the United Nations Security Council resolution that ended last year’s NATO bombing and allowed for the return of more than 700,000 ethnic Albanian refugees to the province. In practice, U.N. administrators are in charge and ethnic Serbs are steadily fleeing Kosovo.

This autumn the Muslim community will appeal to U.N. administrators to allow the introduction of religious studies in primary schools across the province.

“We’ve been trying to get Islamic studies in the ordinary government schools, but so far with no success,” said professor Qemajl Morina, vice dean of the Islamic Faculty. “They are afraid of religion in schools. They are afraid of what they will say in the West, of public opinion.”

Aside from teaching Islam for the 70 percent of Kosovo’s population who are Muslims, Morina believes students should be offered elementary instruction in the region’s two main minority faiths, Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism.

“By teaching children about each other’s religion, we can create more tolerance,” said Morina, 51, a voice of moderation within the Muslim community.

A broad-based Muslim revival in Kosovo could help invigorate the region’s democratic institutions, which are still reeling from last year’s war and 10 years of intense Serb discrimination before that. Andreas Szolgyemy, a Hungarian religion expert working in Pristina, said there is a “tremendous interest among the young” in Islam.

Szolgyemy is an adviser on religious affairs for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is playing a major role in Kosovo’s rebuilding. He said the impact of Islam in Kosovo will be determined largely by what sort of Islam is taught in the region’s schools.

“If they want to teach the Wahhabi ideas, which is what I’m afraid they want to do, I don’t think it will be so good,” said Szolgyemy, referring to the fundamentalist, puritanical brand of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia. “The Wahhabis are not so tolerant. … They forbid, for example, mixed marriages. They treat women as second-rank citizens. They don’t like dancing, the cinema or television.”

Of the 10 Islamic nongovernmental organizations working in Kosovo today, the largest is the Saudi Joint Relief Committee. Saudi sponsors delivered 200,000 Albanian-Arabic Korans to the province last October.

Such assistance is welcome by Mufti Boja, who studied Islam for 15 years in Medina, Saudi Arabia.

“We have a lot of work,” Boja said, noting that 216 of Kosovo’s 513 mosques were damaged in the years of conflict.

Based in mosques, Muslim clerics working throughout Kosovo will hasten the healing process, he said.

“We have imams in every village,” said Boja. “They visit families and explain that according to the Koran they must forget the past and start again. Forget the past.”

At the current rate of growth, Szolgyemy predicted that Kosovo will have an increasingly Muslim character.

“They would like to establish a second Muslim state in Europe. Albania will soon be one. And things are very open in Kosovo. It is nothing for Saudi Arabia to support Kosovo,” he said.

Szolgyemy was quick to caution, however, that “maybe the main religion will be Islam but not the state religion. There are a lot of (Kosovar) Albanian Catholics and I am 100 percent sure they would protest.”

Backed by U.N. administrators, a ministry of religious affairs will likely open this autumn in Kosovo and be headed by a Muslim layman, said Szolgyemy. The ministry would be charged, in part, with monitoring and regulating non-traditional religious missionaries ranging from evangelical Protestants to radical Muslims.

Given Kosovo’s total dependence on governments and public opinion in the West _ where ignorance and fear often color reactions to Islam _ Morina was careful to emphasize that Kosovo’s Muslim leaders would remain independent and tolerant.

“We have made clear to all the Islamic organizations that we will accept their help but that we remain in control of the Islamic situation,” said Morina, adding that Wahhabis are not especially influential. “Because we live in Europe and have other religious communities, we must be very tolerant toward them.”

Like Szolgyemy, Morina said that even if Kosovo has an increasingly Muslim character it will have little impact on the political scene. Referring to U.N.-administered elections set for October, Morina said, “We have 29 political organizations in Kosovo and not one of them has come to visit us.”

Historically, Albanians have identified themselves more by their ethnicity than their faith. However, that has not stopped the identification of religious symbols as ethnic symbols. Since more than 40,000 NATO-led troops entered Kosovo in June 1999, more than 80 Orthodox churches and monasteries have been desecrated. Today, most Orthodox religious sites are protected by soldiers.

“We are ashamed when we see the tanks in front of Orthodox churches because the Albanians have respected Orthodox churches for 500 years, even in places where Serbs don’t live anymore,” Morina said.

“I asked some people, `Why are you destroying this Orthodox church?’ They said, `Because they destroyed our mosque.’ It is not from religious feeling that they do these things. It is from revenge,” Morina continued, as he took out several color photocopies of photos documenting Serb abuses.

The photos showed cases of Serb police torturing young Albanian men by scratching Orthodox crosses onto the victims’ chests during the worst persecution of Kosovar Albanians in the late 1990s.

After fleeing his home in April 1999, Morina said he returned in the summer to find it looted with all his Arabic-language books destroyed.

“I had a big picture of Grandfather on the wall. He was also an Islamic teacher. In the picture, he is wearing a turban and they drew a cross over the turban,” said Morina, chuckling wryly at the stupidity of it.

DEA END BROWN