"Social Existence in Religious Pluralism"

Conference on

Democratic Institutions and Civil Society

in South Eastern Europe

(Strasburg, 5-6 May 1998)




(The Case of Albania)



Archbishop Anastasios (Yannoulatos)

Primate of the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania

Professor Emeritus of the University of Athens




From the first Christian centuries, religion has played a fundamental role in the transformation of culture, self-conscience, and national self-identity among the peoples of South Eastern Europe. Authoritarian regimes, however, dominated most of these countries over the past half century and they imposed an atheistic education, mentality and social structure.  The collapse of these regimes have added other informal social groups to today’s religious scene – “a-religious groups” (I consider this term more accurate than the term “atheistic”).  Such groups remain undefined and without any unique structure of their own, but they represent a significant proportion in modern civil society.  In all the countries of South Eastern Europe, one can observe this phenomenon coming from not only the impact of the old, communistic ideologies, but also arriving from the many influences of a capitalistic, secular mentality and practice, absolutely indifferent to any religious experience.

Therefore, we must approach the issue of religion in this region by seriously considering the dynamics of the traditional religious communities (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Sunni Muslim, and Bektashi) and new religious groups appearing on the scene, as well as the large percentage of citizens (whose number varies from country to country) who no longer desire to belong organically with any religion.

Surely, the search for meaning in human existence remains a basic stimulus that guides millions of people to a particular religious community.  No power can stop such a quest, since it is identified with human existence itself.  The main question, however, is how the various religious attitudes will relate with one another and contribute to a creative co-existence instead of developing into factors of conflicts.

Intolerance among co-existing religious communities can find root in either seeds of a religious type (i.e. extreme fundamentalism) or from non-religious roots (e.g. political, nationalistic, psychological, or selfish factors).  All these roots have been powerful in the past, and are still vigorous in South Eastern Europe. 

On the other hand, peaceful co-existence of religious communities also can derive from two opposite starting points: an indifference to religious experience, or a conscious experience of the inner-most essence of the religion, as represented in the lives of many distinguished personalities of all religions.

The position I want to emphasize in this paper is that in today’s Balkan world, the foundation for any common decision for peaceful co-existence among religious communities themselves, along with non-religious groups can and must be based upon a respect for the Declarations on human rights and a regard for one’s freedom of conscience.  Nowadays, both Christian and Islamic worlds more or less approve of these declarations.


2.  The religious peculiarity of each country in South Eastern Europe is multi-complex. In most states, there traditionally prevails one religion which relates to the identity, culture, endurance and expectations of her people.  I would prefer, however, to get away from general descriptions, criticisms, and proposals at a time when all matters are so inflammable in the region in question.  I want to focus more immediately on the particular experience we have in Albania, where Christians (Orthodox and Roman Catholic) and Muslims (Sunni and Bektashi) traditionally live, together in a secular Democratic society which has no particular positive or negative relation to any religious community.

In the transitional period of the past eight years, a more general crisis in the system of values has appeared in the Albanian society, creating a crisis of confidence in the various forms of authority, as well as an uncertainty for what is genuine.  Where slogans of utopian collectivism prevailed in past years, today’s messages of egocentric capitalism bombard our youth.  A particular reticence dominates everywhere, sometimes expressing itself as apathy and indifference, while other times as escapism.  Within this spiritual vacuum, the religious communities in Albania strive to cultivate a faith in God and open new spiritual horizons which will strengthen her moral ideals and inner discipline, as well as invigorate the endurance and creativity of the people.  But of course, this can only happen in a condition of friendly co-existence with one another.  I believe that Albania can become a positive model of religious co-existence within the Balkans.  Our thinking and everyday activity aim for this goal. 



In order to cultivate a positive climate among the believers of different religions, a careful study and emphasis on the relevant anthropological principles of Islam and Christianity must be realized.  Let us begin by recording the anthropological positions of Islam, which are less known in Western Europe.


1. The idea that man forms a divine “sign” remains an axiom for Islam.  Man’s dignity springs forth from his own nature; it is on this point that all further thoughts about human rights are based.  In his last pilgrimage to Mecca, Mohammed accentuated: “Men, we have created you from a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes, that you might get to know one another.  The noblest of you in God’s sight is he who is most righteous.” (The Koran, Chapter 49, The Chambers, verse 13 - transl. By N.J. Dawood).  At the same time, however, Islam emphasizes the sociability of man and his interrelations with politics, economics, and culture as a whole.  It also underscores man’s immediate link with and dependence on God, denoting the relativity of the human will and submission to the divine will (Islam). 

“Every man is essentially a slave of God, therefore an autonomous human value does not exist.  Humanism, cut off from the eternal and deprived of any spiritual dimension, is inconceivable for Islam; such a direction risks leading to the deification of man,” some Muslim thinkers underline.  More moderate Muslim thinkers, who usually do not represent the majority, positively see the classical declarations of human rights. The modern western expression about “rights of the individual” could be translated in Islam as “a moral right of the citizen, with an emphasis on the natural dignity of man,” according to Ihsan Hamid Al-Mafregy, professor of Law at the University of Baghdad.  According to Islamic teaching, “Man has an inherent value, which the editors of the Declaration of human rights (of the United Nations) called “reason and conscience”.

  Islam accepts human dignity also for followers of other monotheistic religions.  It respects and protects the rights of the dhimmis, non-Muslim protected ones.  In certain cases, the Koran refers generally to non-Muslims, and in other instances, specifically to the followers of Jesus.  In these Koranic verses, sometimes there appears a sympathy, but at other times a clear opposition.  For example, “You will find that the most implacable of men in their enmity to the faithful are the Jews and the pagans, and that the nearest in affection to them are those who say: ‘We are Christians’.” (Koran, chapter 5, The Table, verse 82).  Elsewhere, it bitterly attacks both groups: “Believers, do not seek the friendship of the infidels and those who were given the Book before you.” (Koran, chapter 5, The Table verse 56). Through the centuries, Muslim authorities could interpret each case according to their interest, and therefore have the possibility to act each time in line with their own decision.

  In any case, even within the proper Islamic state, non-Muslim people theoretically have the following rights: a) Individual freedom to travel, engage in commerce, and organize their communities; b) The right to belong to special institutions relating to family and personal life; c) Freedom to organize places of education and cult, and to preserve religious holidays.

  Islamic attitudes becomes severe and intolerant with polytheists and atheists.  Certain sections of the Koran, which according to Muslim theology remains the unaltered word of God, are specific:  “When the sacred months are over, slay the idolaters wherever you find them.  Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them.  If they repent, and take to prayer, and render the alms levy, allow them to go their way.” (Koran, chapter 9, Repentance).

  How will Islam deal with people outside any religious faith, e.g. as in Albania today?  This remains a critical question for Muslim theological-legal thought.  Nevertheless, Islam defines itself as “the religion of logic,” and will hopefully look for a logical proposal corresponding to the modern situations of the world.  The leading class of Albanian Sunni Muslims, in their interaction with worldwide Islam, face two tendencies – fundamentalistic or moderate dialogical.  The tradition of Islam in Albania basically opted for the second alternative, which of course is the only path which can contribute to peaceful co-existence.

  The Bektashi community, which absorbed principles of Shiite Islam, together with elements of Christian and even Indian philosophy and mysticism, have always been very flexible and open to people of other religions.  This tolerant disposition continues today.


  2.  In the Western Christian world, official ecclesiastical circles initially opposed the Declarations of human rights, mainly because they considered such efforts a fruit of humanist philosophy and anti-religious tendencies.  At the same time, though, many Christians tried to theologically justify those rights.  The foundation of Christian anthropology originates from the Old Testament verse, “He made him in the likeness of God” (Gen 5:1), as well as in the dogma of the Incarnation of the Divine Word, where Christ assumed the entire humanity.  Here rests firmly the conception and certainty for the dignity of each human person.

  Despite this understanding, the Roman Catholic Church remained for a long time against concrete declarations of human rights.  The Papal Committee “Justice and Peace” acknowledged in 1975 this point, “It is clear that the acceptance and dissemination of the declarations on human rights, as they were proclaimed by liberalism and secularism, created difficulties, reservations, and also opposition from the side of the Catholics.”

  The Copernician about-face for the Roman Catholic Church occurred in the beginning of the sixties with Pope John 23rd’s encyclical “Pacem in Terris” (1960),  as well as with Vatican Council II’s “Gaudium e Spes” (1965), which refers to the church and modern society.  It underlines that “any form of discrimination at the expense of the fundamental rights of man, based on sex, race, color of skin, social rank, language or religion, must be overcome and eliminated, as being opposed to God’s plan” (29,2).  “For this reason, the Church, in the name of the Gospel which has been given to her, proclaims human rights, acknowledges and very much esteems the dynamism of our time, which gives a new impetus to these rights everywhere.”

  During the first founding assembly of the World Council of Churches, a declaration stated, “Religious freedom is a consequence of the fact that man was created free by God, and therefore it is not possible for the granting of religious freedom to depend upon any government.”  These positions, which were announced in the beginning of September 1948, decisively influenced the United Nations’ final text on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  This was voted upon on 10 December, 1948.  Over the next 50 years, the World Council of Churches has shown a special interest in human rights, placing a particular emphasis on the theme of religious freedom (Amsterdam 1948, Evanston 1954, New Delhi 1961).  Not only has it supported, but it led the fight for human rights on a local, national and international level.


3.  Since 1948, the Orthodox Church has participated in related discussions, deliberations, and declarations under the coordination of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.  Throughout history, the Orthodox Church, with her dogma, worship, and traditional activities, has preached and lived the biblical revelation that man is created in the image of God and ought to move towards His likeness; and, that all humankind originated from a couple who was created by God.  Therefore, all human beings, independent of race, color, language, and education, are endowed with  the dignity of their divine origin.  While western religious thought gave emphasis to the mind, intellect, and will, Eastern Christian theology especially emphasized the element of freedom and love, putting as a center of reference the love and communion of the persons of the Holy Trinity.  By taking on human nature, Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity, bestowed upon every human being inconceivable value, and unquestionably secured personal freedom and dignity.

  In the midst of so many human divisions, the Church is insistently and continually called upon in various places and times to offer her service of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-20), a reconciliation of universal dimensions which Christ realized.  The Orthodox Church, living in the mystery of salvation in Christ and declaring the unfathomable “love of Christ which surpasses all knowledge” (Eph 3:19), has always stressed the sacredness of each human being, independent of their origin, nationality, religion, guilt or virtue.  And, she has stressed the right of every human being to love and be loved, because it is only in this manner that he comes to his fulfillment.  “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God abides in Him” (1 John 4:16).  This is why the central perspective from which all Christians see their responsibility at local and universal levels is love.  This remains the basic source of inspiration and action, possessing immeasurable dimensions as seen in the person of Jesus, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, Christian theology and life.

  With this perspective, the Orthodox Church tries to promote peaceful co-existence in Albania, steadfastly dedicated to the truth that she incarnates.  The freedom of love is not bound by the conviction of others.  “Blessed is he who can love every man the same” (Maximos the Confessor).  Christian love, by definition, has universal dimensions.  No obstacle can suspend it, whether they be national or religious.  When we accept the other man and the other community with deep respect for their freedom, without the claim for them to compulsorily accept our own views, then we feel at ease with the followers of different religious views, a deep respect for their human rights, and a readiness to cooperate for their universal acceptance and support.

  The third Presynodal Pan-Orthodox Conference eloquently summarized the common Orthodox conscience in its “Declaration for Peace, Justice, and Human Rights”: “We Orthodox Christians live the divine condescension every day.  We struggle against every fanaticism and intolerance among all men and peoples.  Since we continually declare the Incarnation of God and the ‘theosis’ (deification) of man, we support human rights for all men and all peoples.  Since we live the divine gift of freedom through the redemptory work of Christ, we are able to reflect more completely the universal value of freedom for every man and people.”

  Together with this feeling of duty to love without boundaries, two different attitudes simultaneously coexist in the Orthodox conscience: the poignant, historical experience we had in our relations with people of other religions, as well as the eschatological perspective.  Both these help protect us from wavering between pessimism and naïve over-optimism. Having in mind the deep ramifications of evil and sin within the social structure and existence of man, the Orthodox believer tries to maintain a calm realism, while steadily looking at the eternal.  This eschatological vision helps us remain faithful to our principles, filling us with hope, even if we ascertain a tragic contradiction between the “telos” (end) to which we look forward with hope, and the concrete historical reality.


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In summary, for a vision of peaceful co-existence among the religious communities in South Eastern Europe to become a reality, it is certain that general observations of the past and a vague optimism for the future are insufficient.  Of course, traditional and historical experiences are valuable, but we cannot simply copy them since our international, modern political-social data and framework differ.  The religious communities must search the principles of a healthy anthropology from the depths of their teaching and the best pages of their tradition, giving emphasis to the sincere respect of each human being, and struggle for the development and prevalence of these principles through the ethos of the leadership and education of their members.

  It must persistently be stressed that every war in the name of religion is an offence against religion.  The holy oil of religion should not be used to ignite or intensify the fire of armed conflicts; it is a divine gift to calm the hearts, heal the wounds, and bring individuals and peoples together in peace.

  Each religion is called upon to develop what is more genuine, deep, and beautiful in what she possesses, and with these, to address the civil society in a peaceful and edifying way.  The only possibility for peaceful living in our region is an acceptance of the existing pluralism, through the initiative of the religious communities themselves.  At the same time there should be a sincere respect for each person’s freedom of conscience, and the rights of all minority groups in every country. 

  What is asked for is not simply religious tolerance, but something much more positive:  conscious mutual respect, understanding, and solidarity among people; creative cooperation in common humanitarian aims; steady effort towards social harmony; and genuine acts of love. “He who loves God cannot but love each man like himself.”  Only in these ways, can we remain consequent to the deeper inspirations and living experiences of our faith.

  Our final proposal is this: With the active contribution of all religious communities, let us proceed toward a wider commonwealth of peace and solidarity, which secures justice and human dignity for every person, for every people, for every minority, and leads to a deeper, human culture.