U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2003 - Albania

Released by the U.S. Department of State Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor on December 18, 2003, covers the period from July 1, 2002, to June 30, 2003.

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.

The generally amicable relationship among the religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 11,100 square miles, and its population is approximately 3,069,275. It has a largely homogeneous ethnic population, consisting of Ghegs in the north and Tosks in the south. The ethnic Greek communities, the largest minority in Albania, are located in the southern part of the country. Other small minorities include the Roma, Egyptian community (an ethnic group similar to the Roma but which does not speak the Roma language), Vlachs, and Macedonians.

The majority of citizens are secular in orientation after decades of rigidly enforced atheism under the Communist regime, which ended in 1990. Despite such secularism, most citizens traditionally associate themselves with a religious group. Citizens of Muslim background make up the largest traditional religious group (estimated at 65 to 70 percent of the population) and are divided into two communities: those associated with a moderate form of Sunni Islam and those associated with the Bektashi school (a particularly liberal form of Shi'a Sufism). In 1925 after the revolution of Ataturk, the country became the world center of Bektashism, although it has not been recognized as such by the Government. Bektashis are concentrated mainly in the central and southern regions and are estimated to represent approximately one quarter of the country's Muslim population.

The Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania (referred to as Orthodox) and the Roman Catholic Church are the other large denominations. An estimated 20 to 30 percent of the population belong to communities that are traditionally Albanian Orthodox, and 10 percent are associated with Roman Catholicism. The Orthodox Church became independent from Constantinople's authority in 1929 but was not recognized as autocephalous, or independent, until 1937. The Church's 1954 statute states that all its archbishops must have Albanian citizenship; however, the current archbishop is a Greek citizen whose application for Albanian citizenship has been pending for several years.

Muslims are concentrated mostly in the middle of the country and to some extent in the south, Orthodox mainly in the south, and Catholics in the north of the country; however, this division is not strict. The Greek minority, concentrated in the south, belongs to the Orthodox Church. There is no data available on active participation in formal religious services, but estimates are that 30 to 40 percent of the population practice a religion. Foreign religious representatives, including Muslim clerics, Christian and Baha'i missionaries, members of Jehovah's Witnesses, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and many others freely carry out religious activities.

According to updated data provided by the State Committee on Cults during the period covered by this report, there are 28 different Muslim societies and groups active in the country; some of these groups are foreign. There are 42 Christian societies representing more than 100 different organizations and 2,500 to 3,000 Christian and Baha'i missionaries. The largest foreign missionary groups are American, British, Italian, Greek, and Arab.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. According to the 1998 Constitution, there is no official religion and all religions are equal. However, the predominant religious communities (Sunni Muslim, Bektashi, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic) function as juridical persons and enjoy a greater social recognition and status based on their historical presence in the country. All registered religious groups have the right to hold bank accounts and to own property and buildings.

Religious movements – with the exception of the four de facto recognized religions – may acquire the official status of a juridical person by registering with the Tirana District Court under the Law on Associations, which recognizes the status of a nonprofit association regardless of whether the organization has a cultural, recreational, religious, or humanitarian character. The Government does not require registration or licensing of religious groups; however, the State Committee on Cults maintains records and statistics on foreign religious organizations that contact it for assistance. No groups reported difficulties registering during the period covered by this report. All religious communities have criticized the Government for its unwillingness to grant them tax-exempt status.

The State Committee on Cults, created by executive decision and based on the Constitution, is charged with regulating the relations between the State and religious communities. The Chairman of the Committee has the status of a deputy minister. The Committee recognizes the equality of religious communities and respects their independence. The Committee works to protect freedom of religion and to promote interreligious development, cooperation, and understanding. The Committee claims that its records on religious organizations facilitate the granting of residence permits by police to foreign employees of various religious organizations; however, some foreign religious organizations have claimed that the Committee's involvement has not facilitated access to residence permits. There is no law or regulation that forces religious organizations to notify the Committee of their activities. There is no law on religious communities, although the Constitution calls for bilateral agreements between the State and religious communities. In 2002 the Committee coordinated the drafting of a model bilateral agreement for use in future negotiations with each religious community. Since then, the four de facto recognized religions (Sunni Muslim, Bektashi, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox) have submitted their own separate draft agreements to be reviewed by the Council of Ministers, but no action has been taken by the end of the period covered by this report.

According to official figures, there are 14 religious schools in the country with approximately 2,600 total students. The Ministry of Education has the right to approve the curricula of religious schools to ensure their compliance with national education standards, and the State Committee on Cults oversees implementation.

Official holidays include religious holidays from all four predominant faiths.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government is secular and religion is not taught in public schools. While there is no law restricting the demonstration of religious affiliations in public schools, students have not been allowed to do so in practice. In July 2003, a female Muslim student graduating from university was prohibited from wearing her headscarf for her graduation picture. After the Office of the People's Advocate (a government institution tasked with investigating citizens' charges of human rights violations and protecting their fundamental freedoms) intervened, the student was allowed to take the photograph with the headscarf, and the case was resolved. The Ministry of Education contends that public schools in the country are secular and that the law prohibits ideological and religious indoctrination. No restriction is imposed on families regarding the way they raise their children with respect to religious practices.

In 1967 the Communist government banned all religious practices and expropriated the property of the established Islamic, Orthodox, and Catholic Churches. The Government has not yet returned all the properties and religious objects under its control that were confiscated under the Communist regime. In cases in which religious buildings were returned, the Government often failed to return the land that surrounds the buildings, sometimes due to redevelopment claims by private individuals who began farming it or using it for other purposes. The Government does not have the resources to compensate churches adequately for the extensive damage many religious properties suffered; however, in 2001 it announced its intention to develop a long-term compensation plan, although that plan appears to have stalled by the end of the period covered by this report. Although it has recovered some confiscated property, including one large parcel of land near Tirana's main square, the Orthodox Church has claimed delays in approvals for construction of churches and other buildings associated with the Church by the city government, and a lack of action on a number of other property claims throughout the country, as well as difficulty in recovering some religious icons for restoration and safekeeping. The Roman Catholic community also has outstanding property claims, but was able to consecrate a new cathedral in central Tirana in January 2002, on land provided by the Government as compensation for other land confiscated during the Communist era. The Muslim Community has also requested that the Government return a number of religious properties, including a large parcel of land located across from the Parliament building in the center of Tirana, on which a mosque once stood. By the end of June the Government has taken no action to address this property claim or a number of other such claims. However, some property has been returned to the Muslim Community.

Parliament and various political parties are working on a property restitution law that is expected to include provisions addressing religious properties, which may improve the overall situation for all religious communities.

The Albanian Evangelical Alliance, an association of approximately 87 Protestant churches throughout the country, claimed that it encountered administrative obstacles to accessing the media. However, Evangelical Alliance representatives state that it is not clear whether the limited access is due to the organization's small size or its religious affiliations. The growing evangelical community continues to seek official recognition and participation in the religious affairs section of the Council of Ministers.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Relations among the various religious groups are generally amicable, and tolerance is widespread. Society largely is secular. Intermarriage among members of different religions is extremely common. Religious communities take pride in the tolerance and understanding that prevails among them.

In January 2003, the General Secretary of the Islamic Community of Albania, Sali Tivari, was shot and killed at the Community's headquarters. Tivari was a central figure in the Islamic community, running the daily affairs of the administration. By the end of the period covered by this report, his murder had not been solved and the motives for his murder remained unclear.

Representatives of the country's Orthodox Church have noted that some churches and other buildings have been the targets of vandalism; however, these incidents were isolated and believed to be the result of the country's weak public order rather than due to religious intolerance.

Some Bektashi communities outside of Tirana have experienced intimidation, vandalism, and threats of violence. There are reports that members of other religious groups have attempted to prevent Bektashis from attending their teqes (holy shrines), and otherwise harassed Bektashi community members. During the period covered by this report a teqe was burned down in Bulqiza.

Bektashi leaders believe that foreign religious influences that are counter to the country's efforts to maintain religious tolerance and freedom are at the root of these incidents. Other religious leaders have expressed similar concerns about the potentially divisive role played by non-citizen religious extremists.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government has employed numerous initiatives to foster the development of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in the country, and to further religious freedom and tolerance. The U.S. Embassy periodically has urged the Government to address outstanding religious property claims and to return church lands to the denominations that lost them under Communist rule. Embassy officers, including the Ambassador, meet frequently (both in formal office calls and at representational events) with the heads of the major religious communities in the country. The U.S. Embassy has been active in urging tolerance and moderation as a continued hallmark of society. In addition, the Embassy's Public Affairs Office is in the process of hiring a Cultural Affairs Assistant who will monitor and report on civic affairs and religious education in secondary schools, including schools operated by faith-based organizations, and promote continued religious tolerance.


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