RELIGION

UN religious freedom expert hails Albania interfaith harmony

The U.N. expert on religious freedom has praised Albania's interfaith tolerance, considering it to be an example for other countries.

Ahmed Shaheed says that Albania is a model for interfaith harmony, with a Muslim majority, and Orthodox and Catholic communities among its 3 million people.

The communist regime banned religion from 1967 until its collapse in 1990, turning churches, mosques and other places of worship into shopping centers, sports halls and theaters.

Shaheed ended an eight-day trip to Albania on Wednesday to prepare a report on its policies and practices on religion, including unresolved issues or new challenges.

"Freedom of religion or belief is a practical reality in Albania, and there is much the world can learn from the Albanian experience in respecting freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief and achieving inter-religious harmony," said Shaheed.

Post-communist Albania made "a rapid reconstruction of the religious infrastructure and the revitalization of spiritual leadership."

Shaheed had learnt only three cases of religious discrimination and considered their solution "a healthy response."

Shaheed said in his preliminary finding that such a "unique co-existence and mutual respect between and among various religious groups should not be taken for granted ... (as) the situation could change more quickly and unexpectedly than many think."

Mainstream religious leaders also have urged believers not to join rebel groups but scores of Albanians are believed to have done so.

Preliminary data shows that no one from Albania has joined any extremist group in Syria and Iraq recently.

"The problem of 'extremist' or 'radical' religious groups now appears effectively to be under control," he said.

Shaheed mentioned his concern of "unknown foreign funding, from unknown sources, with hidden purposes and motives" that have built "unregistered" mosques.

The U.N. expert called on Albania and its international partners "to uphold the unique societal harmony and co-existence that remains a reality in Albania today."