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Preliminary findings of Country Visit to Albania by Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief

Albanian

Press Statement

17 May 2017, Tirana

I conducted my first country visit as the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief to the Republic of Albania from 8-17 May, on the invitation of the Government. During my visit, I met with numerous interlocutors, including government agencies, civil society stakeholders ranging from clergy and other religious leaders to non-profit groups, human rights activists and defenders, political figures, academics, and members of the UN Country Team in Albania. Meetings were held in the capital Tirana and other cities throughout the country, including Korce, Shkoder, Kavaje, and Gjirokaster.

This visit would not have been possible without the cooperation of the Government and the Foreign Ministry, to whom I would like to extend my special thanks. Their cooperation both before and during the trip was instrumental to its success, and I look forward to continuing to work with them on issues related to my mandate in the coming years. I am also extremely appreciative of the support provided by the UN Country Team here in Tirana. They were instrumental in assisting me and my colleague from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to set up meetings with the relevant stakeholders, and their hospitality and expertise were deeply appreciated. Last but not least, I would like to thank the many individuals who agreed to share their unique experiences, best practices, and challenges with us during the visit. Their interactions with me and the mandate have been both fruitful and constructive, and I leave Tirana with a profound sense of hope that despite the many challenges that limit, restrict, or vitiate the freedom of religion or belief around the globe today, religious pluralism and interfaith harmony can, and do, play an integral role in safeguarding fundamental rights in Albania and elsewhere.

Before delving into the substance of my visit and the issues addressed, I would like to emphasize that the picture I am presenting to you today is one that is based on preliminary findings. These findings, which are presented in the form of a press statement today, will be further developed in a comprehensive final report that will be presented during the 37th session of the UN Human Rights Council in March 2018. I will, therefore, continue to engage and work with the Government and other stakeholders in the coming months to ensure that the final report is a comprehensive, balanced, accurate and constructive assessment of the situation of freedom of religion or belief in Albania today. This assessment will undoubtedly focus on the unique and positive aspects of the Albanian experience when it comes to religious freedom, pluralism and interfaith harmony in an effort to share the country’s best practices with the international community, but will also address some of the challenges that Albania faces in ensuring that the freedom of religion or belief is fully realized and sustained.

I. Background: The Unique Albanian Experience

The unique arrangements for the protection of freedom of religion or belief in Albania are best understood, as in the case of any country, with reference to the historical, national and geopolitical context of the country. Albania today is a functioning democracy and was in June 2014 granted EU candidate status. The country is undergoing further democratic reform for the ultimate aim of EU accession. Albania is making progress in addressing all of the five key priorities as identified by the EU Commission as a set of reforms necessary to advance in the EU integration path. The five areas include fight against corruption; fight against organized crime; strengthening of the judiciary; improvement of public administration; and advancement of human rights.

Many interlocutors stressed that the heritage of the Communist era influences the current situation of freedom of religion of belief not least in the common suffering that all religious communities had to endure under the militantly atheistic regime in the Communist Era, especially from 1967. In addition, the unresolved issues related to the confiscation and forcible appropriation of properties belonging to religious communities are among the foremost concerns shared by the traditional religious communities.  Likewise, many officials spoke about their allergy to any policy intervention, even if deemed proportionate and necessary that might recall the brutalization endured under the Hoxha regime.

Albania is a secular state with no official religion and a pluralistic religious landscape. According to the 2011 census statistics which was based on self-declaration of persons, 57 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, 10 percent is Roman Catholic, 7 percent (Christian) Orthodox, 8-9 percent belong to other faiths (including Bektashism, a Sufi order whose world headquarters are in Albania), and 14 percent did not express or give a declaration about religious affiliation. It should be noted, however, that many Albanians are reportedly skeptical about the results of the census for various reasons.

There are five “religious communities” that are legally recognized and have entered into agreements with the state. These are the country’s “traditional religious groups” which include the Muslims (organized under the “Muslim Community of Albania” who are generally Sunni and adherents of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, or fiqh), Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians (organized under the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania), and Bektashis (organized under the World Bektashi Main Community). A fifth group, Protestant Evangelicals (organized under the Evangelical Brethren of Albania) also managed to attain “religious community” status as of 2011. While other religious minority groups are also present in the country and enjoy the right to freedom of religion or belief, they are not formally recognized as “religious communities” by the state and can instead organize themselves under the country’s NGO law.

Among the primary achievements of Albania in protecting freedom of religion of belief is an almost complete reversal of the policies that were pursued in the Communist era and the creation of widespread confidence that the state respects the freedom of religion or belief of all persons within Albania. This is not to say that there are no issues or that everyone subscribes to this understanding, but even those who spoke with me and did not fully subscribe to this view were quick to assert that, by and large, the state respected their right to freedom of religion or belief and that no systemic or fundamental issues existed in this area.

Indeed, Albania has managed to undergo a rapid reconstruction of the religious infrastructure and the revitalization of spiritual leadership that has taken place since the end of authoritarian rule in 1990, while at the same time avoiding political mobilization along religious fault lines. It seems that this phenomenon was seemingly reflective of the resilience and inclusive nature of the Albanian identity. The high degree of inter-religious marriage and social, political, economic and residential intermingling, as well as the very low number of reported cases of discrimination on account of religion or belief, suggested that the ethos of ‘living together’ in mutual respect and harmony was not just a slogan, but a deeply-held value for many Albanians.

Although the underlying circumstances and disposition that nourish and promote interfaith harmony in Albania are unique to the country, I believe there are many examples of good practice, in both governmental policy and communal engagement that can be instructive to the international community. These include: the neutral position that the State takes towards the religious or belief communities in the country; the positive, respectful and inclusive engagement of religious communities with the State; a robust legal framework that guarantees the freedom of religion for all in all its dimensions; the promotion of societal attitudes of mutual respect across different religious and belief communities; and a genuine societal commitment to interfaith solidarity and cooperation.

While the overall picture seems to be a very positive one, I take note of the caution many interlocutors expressed when they told me they were very aware that the unique co-existence and mutual respect between and among various religious groups should not be taken for granted, and that the situation could change more quickly and unexpectedly than many think. My initial observations confirm this, and I take seriously the view that it is a task for everyone in this country, Government and civil society alike, to work together to maintain this interfaith harmony and pluralism despite the fact that the deep-seated tradition of religious tolerance and harmony in the country has proven to be remarkably resilient, as the country has rebuilt its religious infrastructures and capacities in the post-Communist era.

II. Legal Framework

Albania has signed and ratified all nine of the core international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which obligates State Parties to respect, protect and fulfill the right to freedom of religion or belief. It is also a member of the Council of Europe (and therefore, a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights and subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg).

Albania has undergone several reviews by UN human rights mechanisms, including treaty bodies such as the Human Rights Committee, two rounds of the Universal Periodic Review, and Special Procedures visits. Outside of issues related to the restitution of religious property seized during the Communist era (1945-1990), the issue of freedom of religion or belief has not attracted much attention at the UN level.

The bedrock of the legal framework for the protection and promotion of freedom of religion in Albania comprises constitutional provisions guaranteeing freedom of religion, equality and non-discrimination. According to Article 10 of the 1998 constitution, there is no official religion in Albania; the state is neutral on questions of religion, belief or conscience (laicite); and equal protection of the law is guaranteed for all religions. Pursuant to Article 24 of the constitution, everyone in Albania is free to choose or change his or her religion or belief, and to manifest these beliefs either individually or collectively in private or public life through worship, education, practices, or rituals. Article 18 of the constitution provides that no one may be arbitrarily discriminated against on account of religion or belief. Family, personal status, and laws regarding burials and cemeteries are almost exclusively regulated by the secular state.

The law on non-discrimination (Law No. 10221; 2012) provides further protection for the freedom of religion or belief and has been completely harmonised with the relevant directives of the European Union. This law established an independent body, called the Office of the Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination that is tasked with receiving, processing, and ruling on complaints based on discrimination (including based on religion or belief). According to information provided during a meeting, this office has examined only three cases related to discrimination based on religion since its founding in 2010. In two of these cases (related to women wearing the hijab) the office found discrimination on the basis of religion. Article 131 of the Criminal Code makes punishable any activity that unlawfully prohibits or hinders the activities of religious groups. 

Although there is no law specific law on religion or belief and no law requiring registration or licensing to allow practice of religion or belief, adherents must register with local courts as NGOs and come under the purview of the Law on Non-profit Organizations (Law 8788; 2001) to obtain legal recognition as a religious group or entity. Groups registered under Law 8788 are allowed to organize themselves as associations, centres, or foundations. They can also hold bank accounts, own property, and receive partial tax-exempt status as religious organizations. Pursuant to Article 10 of the constitution, however, religious organizations can gain the status of a recognized “religious community” if they enter into an agreement between their representatives and the Council of Ministers, and this agreement is also ratified by the parliament. The agreement defines the legal relations, including duties, obligations and benefits (including financial assistance), between recognized “religious communities” and the state. Pursuant to this article, religious communities and the state must “mutually respect the independence of one another and work together for the good of each of them and for all.”

Religious communities are considered legal entities that can organize themselves and administer their functions and property independent of the state via their statutes or bylaws. Relations between the state and religious groups, including the “communities,” are regulated by the State Committee on Cults which is under the Ministry of Social Welfare and Youth and was established in 1999. In addition to ensuring the protection of freedom of religion or belief, including for Albania’s religious minorities, the Committee is tasked with monitoring the implementation of agreements with the religious communities and promoting interfaith harmony and understanding. A cursory review of the agreements between the state and the five religious communities reveals that each agreement with a community is somewhat unique and different from the other (though many of the provisions are similar in nature). While a number of the provisions define the rights and benefits that accrue to the community, others identify duties and obligations the community must exercise vis-à-vis the state.

Neither the constitution nor other laws and regulations identify a process by which a religious organization can gain the status of a “community”. To date, only five religious groups have been recognized as “religious communities” by the state despite the fact that numerous groups have reportedly requested agreements with the Council of Ministers (see Section III(b) below). Four of the five communities, considered Albania’s “traditional” religious communities, also receive financial assistance from the state. A Government representative told me that this assistance is provided to the communities because of the ethical responsibility the state feels towards these communities and the hardships they endured during the Communist era, while another opined that the payments were in recognition of the historical contributions that these communities had made to nation-building. A more practical reason offered by others was that this assistance enabled these communities with the rebuilding of their religious infrastructure and a degree of independence from other funding sources.

I would also like to recognize the efforts of the Government to limit the scope of restrictions on the public manifestation of religion in Albania, including in relation to the exercise of rites and rituals related to sacred events. Examples include recent efforts by the Government to provide greater autonomy to religious groups when it comes to burial and funeral rites in cemeteries, and exemptions allowing groups to hold religious ceremonies in public spaces that are important or sacred to them (such as “monuments of culture”) that would otherwise be prohibited by law because these spaces are owned, controlled or regulated by the secular state.

III. Challenges and Potential Concerns

Since the opening up of the country in 1990, the unique Albanian experience has been subject to ever-changing domestic, regional and international trends, patterns and developments. These changes encompass new political, economic and cultural influences and realities, including the arrival of new faith adherents and groups not a part of Albania’s traditional religious landscape. Indeed, as several stakeholders, including Government officials, told me during our meetings, Albanians should not take their unique experiment of religious plurality and interfaith harmony as a given—“it is something that requires constant care and attention,” as one stakeholder told me.

While my visit to Albania, as I have already stated, was initiated at the invitation of the Government and was a demonstration of its desire to highlight the country’s many positive achievements with regard to the right to freedom of religion and interfaith harmony—and my preliminary assessment seems, in many ways, to corroborate the Government’s claims—it should be acknowledged that no state or government is without challenges when it comes to realizing this right. During my meetings with interlocutors, I identified several issues of interest that could be characterized as challenges or potential areas of concern. Many of these issues involve the ability of the Government to preserve the very unique nature of pluralism and interfaith harmony that it has so heavily, and rightfully, invested in since 1990 while also abiding by its domestic and international legal obligations. I should, however, also add that most interlocutors, including those who raised these issues, were quick to add that these were ‘minor irritants’ that did not change their overall assessment that freedom of religion or belief was a reality for Albanians.

With the aforementioned caveats in mind, I would like to delve into the issues identified below without prejudice. They may not represent an exhaustive list of challenges and potential concerns and will, undoubtedly, require follow up and further engagement with the Government and other stakeholders prior to the presentation of the final report in March 2018.

a. Restitution of Religious Property

Without doubt one of the biggest challenges, and one that the Government openly acknowledged during its meetings with me, is the restitution of property seized from Albanians, including religious communities, during the Communist era (1945-90). All the traditional religious communities—Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and Bektashi—expressed concern and frustration over what they perceived to be continuous delays regarding the full, or satisfactory, restitution or compensation of their community’s properties by the state. Most believed that the delays are not a result of logistical or even bureaucratic complexities, but a lack of political will on the part of the state over the years.

Some of these properties (or “objects of cult”), which include houses of worship such as churches, cathedrals, mosques or teqes, have since been declared “monuments of culture” by the Ministry of Culture and are now owned and/or regulated by the state (often for the enjoyment of all Albanians), while others were demolished and utilized for other purposes such as new building structures or public amenities. A smaller number, though the exact figures are still unknown to me and need to be further researched, have been returned or their value has been compensated. A good portion of the cases filed, however, reportedly remain unresolved and under review by the Government. Nearly all the communities affected by the seizures who spoke to me conceded that not all properties that were seized during the Communist era could be returned to them, but they nonetheless seek some form of compensation for their loss.

Most of the government agencies with whom I met addressed this issue and acknowledged that the restitution of all outstanding property, including religious property, has been a complicated and difficult process. But the Government also assured me that it had taken new and aggressive steps in the recent year to make the process more fair, transparent and efficient and ensure either restitution or compensation of all valid claims. During my meeting with the Agency for the Treatment of Property, I was informed that a new law passed in 2016 had established a more streamlined and effective regulatory framework that requires the Government to assess and finalize the status of all outstanding claims for property within three years, and to implement the decisions within 10 years, of its passage. The law also establishes a Leke 3.8 billion  compensation fund.

Agency officials told me that the case load comprised 16,000 individual property requests or claims and 9,000 files, and that approximately 700 of these claims (or 400 files) related to religious property. They also informed me that although they are still waiting for the bylaws of the agency to be approved, they had already begun examining the claims in order to deal with these requests more effectively and are on schedule to meet their three-year assessment deadline. This is, in part, due to an increase in agency staff from 90 before the passage of the 2016 law to around 170 employees, they said. The agency also set up a working group in August 2016 to specifically deal with religious property. According to agency officials, the working group has already met with the relevant religious community representatives and will continue to do so during the process.

It is important to note that in addition to the spiritual value attached to some “objects of cult” that were seized by the state, the religious communities see the restitution or compensation of these properties as a critical prerequisite to effectively meeting the financial and spiritual needs of their community, including providing a salary for their clergy. All of the traditional community representatives with whom I met stressed the important link between resolution of the restitution issues and the preservation of independent, vibrant and tolerant religious communities that have existed in Albania for centuries. Several representatives of the Muslim Community specifically noted that restitution of their properties is also important in reducing dependency on foreign sources of funding that may promote values and ideologies that are alien to the traditional Albanian religious communities, particularly the Muslim community.

The scale, scope and complexity of the challenge faced by the Government in addressing these issues cannot be overstated. While many suggested that governments have lacked the political will do address these issues so far, they do not attribute the lack of progress to any form of discrimination on grounds of religion or faith. At the same time, delays in the restitution of properties can cause additional tension as objects deemed holy by a particular  faith-based community may currently be utilized, or modified, in ways that offend the religious sensibilities of that community

b. Religious Pluralism and ‘Community’ Agreements

As previously noted, the state has recognized, and entered into agreements (via the Council of Ministers) with, five religious communities in Albania pursuant to Article 10 of the constitution. These communities include the four traditional ones—Catholic (2002), the Autocephalous Albanian Orthodox Church (2009), the Muslim Community of Albania (2009) and the World Bektashi Main Community (2009)—and more recently the Evangelical Brethren of Albania (also known by the acronym VUSH), a Protestant umbrella group (2011). The agreement between the Catholic community and the state is actually between the Republic of Albania and the Holy See.

The arrangement of entering into agreements with religious groups or communities pursued by Albania, which is a secular (laicite) and neutral state according to its constitution, is seemingly a unique one. On its face, Article 10 of the constitution creates legal differentiation, or perhaps a hierarchy, between religious organizations recognized under Law 8788 and those recognized as “religious communities” that are allowed to enter into agreements with the State. This is certainly true for religious groups who have registered neither as NGOs nor as religious communities. It is not immediately clear, however, whether this hierarchy also produces inequality that leads to unlawful restrictions on the right to freedom of religion or belief, including discrimination. None was reported to me during my meetings.

Additionally, it should be noted that pursuant to international law any agreement between the state and a religious community cannot be used to restrict the right to freedom and belief of the adherents of that community or any other group. This latter position is also acknowledged in Article 10.6 and is clearly mandated by Article 24 of the constitution.

Further research into the legal and practical effects of the agreements, both on the ability of individual and community adherents to practice and manifest their beliefs, is required before any definitive conclusions can be reached. As a preliminary matter, however, it seems that the existence of the agreements raise some interesting questions regarding the state’s desire to preserve the unique characteristics of the country’s traditional religious groups and its relationship with them. Put another way, the agreements highlight the potential tension between a decentralized religious landscape characterized by pluralism, inclusion and independence on the one hand, and hegemonic institutions that represent the promotion and interests of the country’s “traditional” religious communities on the other.

This tension is perhaps most relevant in the case of the Muslim and Evangelical Protestant communities which, unlike the Catholic and Orthodox churches, do not have unified or centralized governance structures and could potentially represent many different groups, sects, schools of jurisprudence (or fiqh), or ideological streams that self-identify as “Muslim,” “Protestant” or “Evangelical.” I note, for example, that article 2 of the agreement entered into between the Council of Ministers and the Muslim Community defines the latter as “an organization of Muslim believers who express, demonstrate and/or practice their conviction, principles and religious practices determined in the sources of Islam legislation, Religious Legal School “Hanafi” and statute of Muslim Community of Albania (emphasis added).” This definition would seem to preclude the inclusion of Muslim groups that do not subscribe to the “Hanafi” fiqh.

Additionally, there is a question under the current legal framework regarding the power recognized communities may exercise over religious groups who do not wish to come under their influence or organizational umbrella. More specifically, there is an issue regarding whether these communities may effectively exercise veto (or “gatekeeper”) powers preventing religious groups they oppose or disagree with, either on ideological or other grounds, from gaining legal status or being able to practice their faith altogether. The concern is not only an academic one. During my meetings, several government officials, including those affiliated with the country’s security apparatus, told me that the phenomenon of ethnic Albanians fighters, including some from Albania, traveling to Syria, the recent convictions of two self-declared imams and six other persons for recruiting foreign terrorist fighters (or inciting them to fight abroad), and an apparent rise in the number of “unregistered” mosques built by foreign money source, required the Government to change its “laissez-faire policy” when it comes to allowing religious groups to organize and build new houses of worship.

While being careful to note that there were, in fact, very few cases of foreign terrorist fighters going to Syria from Albania and that the problem of “extremist” or “radical” religious groups now appears effectively to be under control, several officials said that the country’s new strategy to counter violent extremism demonstrated the desire for more vigilance. This vigilance, they said, will be accomplished by undergoing a systematic effort to “legalise” all houses of worship in Albania (to ensure they have the proper permits to operate) and increased reliance on religious communities, including Muslim Community, to effectively vet new groups to ensure that they are “legitimate” (see Section III(c) below for further information). It was not immediately clear, based on my conversations with officials, what would happen to groups who refuse to cooperate with traditional communities—whether they would be disbanded and their houses of worship shut down.

While fully acknowledging the state’s responsibility to protect public security and its interest in preserving Albania’s unique religious landscape, there are concerns that reliance on religious communities to ensure the “legitimacy” of faith groups, including those outside their influence, can potentially lead to unlawful restrictions on the right to freedom of religion or belief. Government officials told me that this reliance is, in fact, an example of the state’s unwillingness to interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations, including the Muslim Community, and allow them to self-regulate. But there are legitimate questions regarding whether this type of outsourcing effectively deputises one faith community to regulate the beliefs and activities of another, thereby establishing a monopoly or hegemony of traditional faith groups in the country that excludes, or at the very least discriminates, against groups outside the mainstream. Moreover, this type of interdependency may ultimately lead to the erosion of the secular wall between religious groups and the state.

I want to be clear that there is no indication, at this time, that the Government’s more stringent approach to “new faith groups,” as it were, violates its international obligations to protect the right to freedom of religion or belief. My concerns are not, in any way, meant to discourage the Government to continue to engage with faith communities to resolve issues of critical concern, including preserving public order and security. The challenge, I believe, is to ensure that these legitimate interests are secured in a manner that is consistent with its obligations to protect the right to freedom of religion or belief. I am very much committed to working with the Government in the coming months in pursuit of this objective.

c. Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE)

A further concern that the Government and other interlocutors shared with me related to relatively recent developments related to the issue of religious extremism and religious dissent, particularly within the Muslim community. While there seems to be widespread acceptance that the trial of the two self-declared imams and six other persons was a successful effort by the Government to address concerns about the recruitment of foreign terrorist fighters, it should be noted that law enforcement authorities are only one part of a complex network of engagement that is required to lawfully and effectively prevent violent extremism.

While the government’s PVE National Strategy, which was launched in 2016, contains a number of elements that are commendable and necessary, the issue of addressing dissent within the Muslim community can be a particular challenge, amplified by the lack of an ecclesiastical structure in Islam and the Government’s policy of managing its relations with members of different religions through leaders of their communities. As noted above, it would be vital that such policies respect the principles of religious pluralism, universality, and inclusion of all communities and groups on an equal footing as long as they are not engaging in violence, incitement to violence, hostility or discrimination, or activities that are considered criminal under international law. This should be done without granting a veto power on matters of creed to the heads of religious communities. One important way of achieving such inclusion is to foster intra-faith and inter-faith dialogue at the same time. The process of inclusion can also be supported by speeding up the legalization of various houses of worship, based on transparent and non-discriminatory criteria, which could then facilitate a more inclusive engagement with all communities. Despite widespread concern about the potential threat of “extreme” or “radical” Islam, there is widespread commitment to uphold the unique societal harmony and co-existence that remains a reality in Albania today.

Challenges in this area are undoubtedly difficult, not only for Albania but for every country facing issues of radicalization and violent extremism. I am thankful that Government officials responsible for implementing the National Strategy took the time to meet with me and explain the nuts and bolts of this strategy, and I look forward to engaging with them in the coming years, along with other important stakeholders, to ensure that their PVE programs are implemented in a manner that guarantees the protection of fundamental rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief.

d. Religious Education

A related issue, but also one that has a dynamic of its own, is that of the space and ability to provide educational services that the community of believers demands. I was told by several religious communities that the training of the clergy could be greatly enhanced if access to seized properties is restored. In this context, I commend the efforts that have so far been undertaken by committed individuals and communities to rebuild the educational infrastructure, in some cases from scratch, in the years subsequent to the fall of Communism. However, these efforts have sometimes come at a high price because they have led to dependence on international sources of funding. They have also taken their toll on religious leaders, with one telling me that the leaders of his community have turned into “international beggars” since 1990.

However, not all issues related to teaching were tied to the availability of funding or resources. According to information received from one religious community, efforts to add a faculty of theology at a privately-run university owned by them have so far been fruitless. The denial of permission by the Government was allegedly on the grounds that a faculty of theology was inconsistent with the secular commitment of the state. The community’s request for teaching theology was grounded in the desire to provide tertiary education in the field of theology for lay-persons who may subsequently wish to study clerical subjects that could enable them to pursue a faith-based vocation. The community leaders also argued that the opportunity to study theology in the country would also contribute to reducing the numbers of students who may travel abroad for further study in theology, and reduce the likelihood that they will be exposed, at a formative stage, to teachings that may not be compatible with the values and traditions taught in Albania. The frustrations of the community have been amplified because they allege that another religious community has been granted permission to teach theology in their private-run university. While more research needs to be done to understand the facts and context of this case, I would like to note that the denial of the right to teach theology in a privately-owned university may be an unlawful restriction by the state on the right of the community to teach, propagate and manifest their faith.

Information gathered during the visit suggests that the Government is now well advanced in its efforts to introduce education about various religions, and the diverse and pluralistic landscape of religion in Albania, as part of the civic education in schools. This programme, which is being implemented through a partnership with UNESCO and is currently being piloted in 10 urban and rural schools across the country, is conceived within the context of the Government’s interest in reinforcing good citizenship education through increased awareness of diversity and, if properly executed, could contribute to reinforcing the existing climate of interfaith harmony, mutual respect and an peaceful co-existence. I understand that prior to the launch of the programme authorities conducted initial consultations with a range of stakeholders, including members of religious communities, which enabled them to identify some of the concerns and challenges that may arise.

The views shared with me by various faith-based communities suggest that there are some concerns that more could be done to ensure engagement, cooperation and transparency. While I am mindful of the differences of opinion amongst faith-based communities about the priorities for the content of these modules, more transparency could facilitate a sustained positive commitment from faith-based communities to buy in, and fully invest in, the implementation of the programme in the coming months and years.

e. The Situation of Religious Minorities

During the visit, I had a chance to meet with several representatives of religious minority groups. I also met with some members of Albania’s national and ethnolinguistic minority groups to understand the intersectionality between freedom of religion or belief and minority identities. I was very keen to understand how the legal framework in Albania, especially with regard to the legal differentiation, or perhaps hierarchy, that is established between “religious organizations” and “religious communities” has affected the ability of minority religious groups to practise their faith.

While these groups talked about the lack of resources compared to the traditional religious groups and discussed the possibility of elevating their legal status in order to take advantage of benefits including tax exemption, there are no initial indications that the domestic legal framework has had a negative impact on their ability to exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief. Additionally, my preliminary assessment does not suggest that these communities are subjected to discrimination on account of their actual or perceived religious identity either by the state or society at large.   

The situation seems somewhat more complicated in the case of national or ethnolinguistic minorities in the Albania, in particular the Greeks and Macedonians. Both of these minorities are legally recognized as “national minorities” in Albania (along with Montenegrins). This legal recognition provides them with official status as minorities, and generally allows them to use their language in matters related to education and the press. Some members of these communities expressed frustration at what they allege is general discrimination, primarily by the state, that targets their communities. Several members also expressed frustration regarding the way the 2011 census was carried out, alleging that the official figures provided by the state do not reflect the actual populations of their communities and that this underreporting has had a negative effect on their ability to be recognized as national minorities in certain areas of the country.

With respect to the intersectionality between freedom of religion or belief and minority identities, several members of the Macedonian community told me that despite their population and legal recognition as a national minority in several districts around the country (including in and around the city of Korce), they have not been able to convince government officials or the Orthodox Church of Albania—the only officially recognized Orthodox church in the country—to allow them to establish their “own church” in the country. While they acknowledged that the Albanian Orthodox Church has allowed clergy, including some from Macedonia, to conduct services in the Macedonian language, the supply of such clerics is small compared to the overall population of Macedonians in the country (especially during sacred holidays). The interlocutors also noted that because Orthodox Macedonians use a different Christian calendar from the Albanian Orthodox Church, they are sometimes prevented from carrying out important ceremonies on the proper days. A member of the Greek community also expressed concern about the alleged destruction of an Orthodox church in the area of Himara in southern Albania, which he believed was reflective of the general discrimination faced by Greeks in the country.

Last but not least, I met with a representative of the Egyptian and Roma communities to better understand the ways in which discrimination against these groups, which is acknowledged by both Government and civil society interlocutors with whom I met, affects their ability to exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief. (It is important to note that members of the Roma and Egyptian communities often self-identify as belonging to different ethnolinguistic groups.) I was also keen to see whether the general discrimination faced by these groups is motivated, at least in part, by animus on account of religion or belief. My initial impressions suggest that there is de minimus interference with these groups’ right to freedom of religion or belief, but I believe more research needs to be done in this area.

I also met with representatives of the Jewish community and the Bahai faith who confirmed that their freedom of religion or belief was guaranteed in law and practice.

f. Women, Gender and Sexuality

During my visit, I discussed issues regarding women’s rights and LGBT rights with several interlocutors in the context of freedom of religion or belief, with civil society groups and UN country team members working on these and related issues, such as UN Women, the UN Fund for Population Assistance, and the World Health Organization. I specifically note that legal safeguards in Albania protecting these groups from discrimination, including by individuals motivated on account of religion or belief, are excellent and in compliance with Albania’s international legal obligations. There appear to be several LGBT groups or associations freely operating in the country, and members of the community participated in a Gay Pride Parade during my visit without incident. Additionally, members of the UN country team with whom I spoke said they were generally pleased with the level of engagement and cooperation they have received from Albanian faith leaders from all of the recognized communities, with regard to the provision of services in the areas of reproductive health and family planning.

Interlocutors did inform me, however, that both groups suffer from discrimination and abuse from society at large, including members of their families. For women (and children), the manifestation of this abuse involved high rates of domestic abuse or violence, although there is no indication that this abuse is related to particular faith communities. Interlocutors also expressed concern regarding high rates of societal discrimination and abuse against members of the LGBT community. They observed , that arguments rooted in religious teachings and traditional values were mobilized by some faith-based leaders and secular actors to incite discrimination against LGBT members, especially in the context of efforts made by politicians to extend legal protections against discrimination to the LGBT community. In light of the importance of these issues, I believe more research needs to be done in this area as well.

IV. Preliminary Recommendations

a) To the international community:

  • While it has not been possible to undertake a comprehensive review of Albania’s national strategy on the prevention of violent extremism, a number of important elements were identified, especially in the priority areas addressed by the government, such as education, social inclusion and religious diversity. I call on Albania’s international partners to continue to support the country in the implementation of initiatives that advance respectful education of religion to increase awareness; to support projects that can address challenges of social exclusion that fan the flames of extremism and militancy; to continue their engagement to reform the judiciary and general human rights practice;
  • The international community, especially those engaged in the ‘Istanbul Process’ and interfaith initiatives can learn from best practice generated by the Albanian context especially with regard to sustenance of social harmony, inclusive national identity, and inter-religious communication.

b) To the Government:

  • It is important that the restitution of properties as well as the legalization of houses of worship are expedited and carried out in a fair and transparent manner, and with the engagement of stakeholders;
  • Freedom of religion or belief is inter-related to a number of other human rights including those related to the rule of the law. Reforms related to the administration of justice are important to ensure that respect for freedom of religion or belief are sustained and to strengthen public confidence in the ability of state institutions to ensure fair and equal treatment for all;
  • The proposed programmes to introduce a module on religion as part of civic education in schools is an important part of nourishing and safeguarding interfaith understanding and societal harmony. However, it would be important to ensure that the education programmes are carried out in a transparent manner that sustains public trust and confidence in the education system;
  • The state should continue to facilitate and encourage interfaith  and intra-faith initiatives and activities, and contribute to sharing good practice with international partners;
  • One of the most striking features of the situation in Albania is that religion is not used as an identity marker or a basis for political mobilization.  It would be important to take steps to strengthen the separation between political mobilization and religion and to nurture the inclusive national identity, while fully respecting the rights of national and linguistic minorities, especially in the context of the changing religious landscape of the country;

c) To civil society:

  • Religious communities, groups and civil society organizations must continue to ensure that both intra-religious dialogue and inter-religious dialogue are sustained to promote societal harmony, inclusion and mutual respect;
  • Civil society actors have a vital role to play in upholding the traditions of inclusion and offering empathy and solidarity across communities, and must ensure that religious difference or religious resources are not mobilized to support hate speech and incitement to discrimination, including in the case of LGBTI communities.