Why Albania Was The First Stop On The Pope's European Tour
Guest post written by Edi Rama
Mr. Rama is the Albanian Prime Minister
The visit of Pope Francis to Albania last week was a highlight in my country’s history. But more than that, it was a powerful message for the world. First, because he chose one of Europe’s poorest countries to begin his European tour. Second, and more importantly, he chose a country where the Muslim majority co-exist peacefully with Christians. He came, a universal spiritual leader and the flag-bearer of the human endeavor against prejudice and divisions among people on grounds of faith, ethnic background or social provenance; and he was received by both Christians and Muslims with no distinction. That is a rare miracle in the increasingly turbulent and fearful world in which we are living. I was proud of the face Albania presented to him, and to the world, a remarkable example of inter-religious coexistence.It was hugely significant to us that he began this series of events in Europe not in the heart of Europe, not in the EU, but in the Western Balkans. A region famed through history for conflict, not least the one which erupted from Sarajevo 100 years ago; a region which has endured a century of ideological wars, ethnic conflicts, religious divergences, bloody unrest border to border. But which today is a region of peace and cooperation. To think for a moment of that history is to understand why we felt so moved by his visit, and the sight of hundreds and thousands of Christians and Muslims swarming the martyrs’ boulevard from the early hours. In Communist Albania, clergy were killed, Churches burned to ashes. Today the leaders of our various faiths are a vital part of our civic society, working together for the good of the people.
The message that sends to the world is vital at this time. Because, as Pope Francis told the crowds, World War III has already begun.
Some might disagree. But as he spoke, the barbarous advance of the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant continued, bringing with it mayhem, murder, instability that crosses borders and, if unchecked, will leave no country on earth untouched: all in the name of religion, a perverted view of a faith, Islam, which we know to be peaceful in its thinking and intent.
That it is war is clear from the way they are pursuing it. Our response must be just as clear. Because it affects us all. When the severed heads of murdered innocent men, there to help the vulnerable or tell the world what is happening, are used as message carriers to the US and its allies, we must surely see this is a war akin to a fight against a deadly pandemic that spreads with no distinction of borders, conventions or rules set by previous experience.
The fight against this abhorrent plague that is threatening our world, our liberty, our rights as human beings and our aspirations as societies of democratic countries can only be fought together. Part of that fight is military. But part of it is to show the power and the benefit of harmonious coexistence among religions, communities, ethnicities and countries.
We should not shy from the military part of this. Sometimes it is war that will deliver peace. Pope Francis landed in Albania in the very year where Albanians, both Muslims and Christians, joined with other neighbours in the region to seal an historic process started in 1999 with the bombing of Belgrade, and the courageous fight led by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to halt the ethnic cleansing of Albanians by Slobodan Milosevic. Their acts of war ended the ethnic cleansing, brought about the fall of an evil dictator, which in turn led to the peace agreement sealed last year between Kosovo and Serbia, in the name of a common future in the European Union.
From that crossroads, the Holy Father came here to speak not only to Albanians or to the peoples of this region, but to all of Europe about the need to have faith and unity, and to overcome boundaries and limitations of the present in order to protect our common future. We look at the way the conflict now impacts on Turkey, and we see common cause. We hear of the plans of terror groups to launch attacks on Western targets, and we see common cause. We witness the spread of this evil message of hatred in the name of religious belief, and we must see common cause on halting that spread, large and small country alike, together. Western Europe and Western Balkans, together. Christian and true Muslim, together.
The Balkans needs Europe. But Europe needs the Balkans. That too, I believe, is a reason why The Pope came here, by his presence to deliver that message. At a time so many affluent European countries are turning in on themselves, they should be looking outwards, in the name of building a common shield that will defend us from an epidemics that kill the strong as well as the weak, the rich as well as the poor, unless we stand and fight together.
These murderers have shown there is no depth to their barbarism, which means there is no limit to the terror they would wreak upon our world. Democratic Europe, as their war comes ever closer, must fight back not only with weapons, but with the strength of unity against a fantasy gone rampant, against people who would return our to the dark abyss of past millennia. We are a poor country, but one that is willing to play our part in that; a part we can only play in co-operation with others in Europe and the wider world.
History has not been kind to Albania. But we have learned from it. That much was clear from the way our people came out to see, hear and celebrate with Pope Francis. He, a Catholic leader, understood that Albania deserves respect for our unanimously voiced affiliation to the democratic world as Europeans; we do not deserve the prejudice that sometimes goes the way of Muslim countries. Albanians should be respected for all the blood and suffering they consecrated to Christianity, giving forty martyrs to the Catholic Church only a few decades ago, and not be subjected to frivolous or unfair judgement because they pray to Allah in a country where Christmas and Bajram are also celebrated without boundary of fear.
The Pope is not alone in understanding the role the Balkans has to play in ensuring peace and prosperity for our times. His visit follows historic steps taken by Chancellor Merkel. She fought hard for Albania to secure EU candidate status. She also brought together, for the first time early in September, all the region’s leaders for a meeting in Berlin, to convey her insight that, beyond the impasse of the enlargement policy, the EU intends to bring the Balkans closer by building new bridges of support and cooperation.
Our world needs leadership in the face of so many current global challenges. Chancellor Merkel has shown it. So has the Pope. A Prime Minister of Albania will never have the power of a German Chancellor or the reach of a Pope. But we have a part to play. The Balkans has a big part to play. Our major challenge today to steer clear from this deadly epidemic of religious conflict which, in this region, would automatically spill over into an ethnic conflict and lead to renewed disputes about the current borders of peace. That is our challenge. But it is a challenge for the whole of Europe, and one we must face together, with courage. Angela Merkel and the Pope have led the way. Others now need to follow. This is a war that Europe must fight together.