The country has an area of 11,100 square miles and a population of 3.6 million. No reliable data were available on religious participation or membership; the last official census including such data was held in 1939. The majority of citizens do not actively practice a faith; however, the four traditional religious groups are Muslim (Sunni), Bektashi (a form of Shi'a Sufism), Orthodox Christian (the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania), and Roman Catholic. In addition, there are substantial numbers of Protestant denominations and other religious groups, including Baha'is, Jehovah's Witnesses, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).
One of the major legacies of nearly five centuries of Ottoman rule was the conversion of up to 70 percent of the Albanian population to Islam. Therefore, at independence the country emerged as a predominantly Muslim nation, the only Islamic state in Europe. No census taken by the communist regime after it assumed power in 1944 indicated the religious affiliations of the people. It has been estimated that of a total population of 1,180,500 at the end of World War II, about 826,000 were Muslims, 212,500 were Orthodox, and 142,000 were Roman Catholics. The Muslims were divided into two groups: about 600,000 adherents of the Sunni branch and more than 220,000 followers of a dervish order known as Bektashi, which was an offshoot of the Shia branch. Bektashism was regarded as a tolerant Muslim sect that also incorporated elements of paganism and Christianity.
A dogmatic Stalinist, Envar Hoxha considered religion a divisive force and undertook an active campaign against religious institutions, despite the virtual absence of religious intolerance in Albanian society. Although there were tactical variations in Hoxha's approach to each of the major denominations, his overarching objective was the eventual destruction of all organized religion in Albania. In the late 1940s and 1950s, the regime achieved control over the Muslim faith by formalizing the split between the Sunni and Bektashi sects, eliminating all leaders who opposed Hoxha's policies, and exploiting those who were more tractable. Steps were also taken to purge all Orthodox clergy who did not yield to the demands of the regime, and to use the church as a means of mobilizing the Orthodox population behind government policies. The Roman Catholic Church, chiefly because it maintained close relations with the Vatican and was more highly organized than the Muslim and Orthodox faiths, became the principal target of persecution. Between 1945 and 1953, the number of priests was reduced drastically and the number of Roman Catholic churches was decreased from 253 to 100. All Catholics were stigmatized as fascists, although only a minority had collaborated with the Italian occupation authorities during World War II.
In 1967 the Communist authorities conducted a violent campaign to extinguish religious life in Albania, claiming that religion had divided the Albanian nation and kept it mired in backwardness. Student of agitators combed the countryside, forcing Albanians to quit practicing their faith. Despite complaints, even by APL members, all churches, mosques, monasteries, and other religious institutions had been closed or converted into warehouses, gymnasiums, and workshops by year's end. A special decree abrogated the charters by which the country's main religious communities had operated. The campaign culminated in an announcement that Albania had become the world's first atheistic state, a feat touted as one of Enver Hoxha's greatest achievements.
Religious intolerance may be creeping into Albania, injecting tensions into communities that have otherwise peacefully coexisted. Since religious life has begun again in Albania after years of severe repression during the communist regime, people are struggling to come to terms with new forms of religious expression. Some of these forms of religious expression are simply new or different, contributing to the enrichment of Albanian culture. Others seem intolerant, divisive and extreme and threaten to erode the Albanian tradition of religious tolerance.
An informal survey conducted in June 2003 by the Institute of Studies and Opinions in coordination with Management Systems International, found that 70 percent of Albanians polled did not consider religion an important part of their lives, but identify themselves as belonging to one of the four major faith groups on the basis of family tradition. Almost a quarter of those surveyed considered themselves practicing believers, while 12 percent said they were willing to "fight in the name of God." This last figure as well as manifestations of extreme attitudes raises concerns about the growth of fundamentalist and extremist sentiments within Albania. Without countervailing forces, fundamentalism could corrode the traditional tolerance that has characterized Albanian society and threaten the stability of the region.
According to the Ministry of Education, public schools are secular and the law prohibits ideological and religious indoctrination. Religion is not taught in public schools. According to official figures, religious communities, organizations, and foundations had 103 affiliated associations and foundations, with 101 of those managing 101 educational institutions, of which 15 were officially religious-affiliated schools. By law the Ministry of Education must license these schools, and curriculums must comply with national education standards. The Catholic and Muslim groups operated numerous state-licensed schools and reported no problems obtaining licenses for new schools. The Orthodox Church and the Bektashis operated strictly religious educational centers for the training of clerics.
The Government continued to address claims from each of the four traditional religious groups regarding the return or restitution of property seized during the former communist era; however, many of the property claims remained unresolved. With the newly signed bilateral agreements, the State Agency for the Restitution and Compensation of Property was instructed to give priority to properties owned by religious communities. The Orthodox Church continued construction of a new cathedral in Tirana on land that it received as compensation for land seized by the communist government, but it cited lack of action on other property claims throughout the country. Both the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church included in their restitution claims religious icons and precious manuscripts seized by the communist government that remained in the national archives. The Albanian Islamic Community continued to request building permits for a new mosque on land that was returned to the community through the post-communist restitution process. The request remained under consideration by the Municipality of Tirana.
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