I met an Albanian over coffee after mass on Sunday. His wife is active in our parish. We ended up speaking in Greek to each other: although this man’s mother tongue is Albanian, he is from the south of that country, where much of the population speak Greek as their native language. I once spent five years in Greece when I was an English teacher and I remember Greek about as well (or as badly) as many Finns remember their Swedish.

In Albania there are Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox. The Communists claimed to have wiped out religion totally in their country, but they merely pushed it underground. Relations between the different faiths are good. No doubt they were united by their common suffering during the dictatorship, but religious tolerance is also a leftover from Ottoman times. The Muslim Ottoman Turks ruled the Balkans for hundreds of years, and were tolerant of Christianity and Judaism. Orthodox Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in peace and harmony in the nearby Greek city of Thessalonica, too. Istanbul was another tolerant, multicultural city.

Unfortunately the modern world, with its nationalism, extremist ideologies and religious fundamentalism, put an end to this idyll. It is hard to imagine such peace and harmony in, for example, modern Palestine/Israel, where all three faiths are represented. However, we should remember that even there things used to be better. The enmity between Jew and Muslim is relatively new: it was not like that until modern times. Nor is it based on religious differences, but on nationhood, power, economics, resources and so on.

Do not believe people who claim that there are ancient rivalries or hatred betwwen races or religions. Usually these problems go back a surprisingly short time. People of different faiths got on quite well for hundred of years in the Eastern Mediterranean. They still do in Albania.

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