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An interview with Archibishop of Albania Anastasios

An extreme Islam attraction pole for the hungry

" We are experiencing a clash between culture and terrorism and not a clash of civilisations". The primate of the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania, Archbishop Anastasios is categorical. He does not believe that the people that planned the terrorist attack in New York represent Islam. In September, he went to Sarajevo for a meeting between Christians and Muslims on the co-existence of the two religions in Europe (where he was honoured by the European Institute of Civilisation 'Pro Europa' with the 'Pro Humanitate' award). At the beginning of October, he went to Rome to take part in a summit meeting between Christian and Muslim intellectuals and religious leaders. "The Muslims that participated insisted that Islam condemns terrorism. However, no one can deny that there are other Muslims who plan and support their terrorist activities through their own interpretation, using even the inspiration of the Koran."

His vision turns towards the "different"; he has courage and knowledge. Archbishop Anastasios can talk about Islam. He is the person that in 1975 (the then Bishop of Androusa of the Greek Church * and professor at the University of Athens ) published the first composite and informative work on Islamism in Greek. He was and still is the only Greek hierarch that felt the "urgent" need to cover a historical gap: the gap of ignorance about the religion and culture of Muslims "next to or together with whom the Greek people have lived for centuries".

Anastasios has been living in the land of contrasts, grief and optimism for 10 years and continues his path of offering. He is looking for the "solution to the big problem of how you will see the 'other', the different. Will you see it in a hostile way following the thought that this 'other' is outside the love of God or will you see it as another form of His own Providence ... He follows the path of mutual understanding and this is why he was honoured with the "Pro Humanitate" award. Because of his faith to the "need to have the infrastructure for peace which is nothing more than men's dignity and the quality of life", his name is on the list of nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In a corner of a dividing world, Archbishop Anastasios turns his gaze to his office window, looking at a picture symbolising peace and hope. There, next to the cracked glass, where there is an embedded bullet (a remnant of the conflicts of the past), a pigeon, a Eurasian collared dove, has built its nest. There it has laid its eggs... there it has taught its young ones to fly. He draws the curtain carefully so as not to scare them...

Do you agree with Huntington 's idea that we are experiencing a clash of civilizations?

We are rather experiencing a conflict between culture and terrorism. I do not believe that terrorism expresses culture. I have always disagreed with Samuel Huntington's book "The Clash of civilizations". As it is known, the specific professor of strategic studies makes a distinction between the western civilisation, as it was formed by Roman- Catholicism and Protestantism, and the eastern civilisation into which, in a fully unsolicited way, apart from Islam, he also incorporates Orthodox Christianity. I find this last connection unacceptable. Terrorism as a cry of protest against oppressive regimes was used in the past by indifferent or even hostile groups towards any form of religiousness. What we see today, though, is a developed form of terrorism which along with the latest technology uses religious impulses. I do not think that the people that planned the terrorist attack of the 11 th of September represent Islam in its entirety. There are many Muslims who condemned it.

Do you agree with the ones that describe the situation as the beginning of a religious war between Islam and Christianity?

I do not think it is correct to talk about a religious war between Islam and Christianity. First of all, there is no single Christian world. Furthermore, there is no single Islam. In the western world, a very big percentage shows great indifference towards Christian principles. Secularism and religious indifference have created new principles, a new orientation, in capitalist societies.

Are there two types of Islam: A "good" one that renounces terrorism and a "bad" one that incites the tension?

There is a problem; and this problem is not solved because some Muslim intellectuals say that the true Islam renounces terrorism. The fact is that a vast majority of Muslims are convinced that they are waging war and, furthermore, holy war -jihad". The recent terminology used by the Westerners helps them in this. Not only the "true Islam" does not condemn the "holy war", but it calls its faithful Muslims to wage it. There is, thus, now a mild Islam that renounces terrorist activities and another one that clearly proclaims it. The most dangerous thing is that the believers of the latter are convinced that by giving their lives for Islam they secure the highest requirement of a faithful -the certain acceptance in paradise. Both trends can justify their opinions by using excerpts and arguments from the Koran. Regardless of which one is the true Islam and who supports it, it is a fact that the other Islam is a reality. A dispassionate and composed approach is imperative now. Religious beliefs have their own logic and dynamic.

What is the most disquieting thing in this development?

The economically developed societies of the West must seriously take into consideration that there is an important shift taking place in the attitude of the poorest societies of our planet. In the twentieth century, many of the oppressed groups turned to communism which had been identified with historical materialism. Although it had adopted many important Christian mottos, as the ones talking about social justice, brotherhood, equality, it rejected the spirit of religious faith from its fighting dynamism. There is nowadays another pole of attraction for the ones that are on the borderline of starvation, especially in Asia and Africa : a kind of Islam that uses religious faith in an extreme way. We can, therefore, be led to another type of conflict. The rich societies of the West that started from a Christian tradition without being consistent to it must become essentially just in their global debt. I believe that the other two names of peace today are justice and development. If the rich countries continue to be indifferent for these two things, we may face many surprises and upheavals in various parts of the planet.

You write in your study about Islam that apart from theological differences, this religion is the only one from the living religions that is so close, spiritually as well as geographically, to Orthodox Christianity. Where exactly can we see this proximity?

Islam is obviously closer to Christianity than Hinduism, Buddhism, the traditional Chinese or Japanese religions which are based on completely different philosophical conditions and systems of thought. Islam, as well as Christianity, has been fed by the religious layer starting from Abraham's tradition. Common elements, in general terms, are: the certainty about God's existence, the belief about the common origin of mankind, the faith to the message of the prophets who talked on behalf of God, the faith to the resurrection of the dead and the last judgment. Furthermore, many forms of expression of religious experience follow parallel paths: prayer, alms, fast, confession of faith, various celebrations, respect of honour and property. There are differences such as the apprehension of God, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Jesus Christ and everything that this means, the belief that "God is love". In social beliefs, the differences are mainly related to the principle about the value and position of women as well as the form of religious freedom. This is why we are not one religion but different ones. However, despite our differences, Orthodox Christians have co-existed with Muslim populations for many centuries. In many regions, such as contemporary Albania , this co-existence is still peaceful.

How can peaceful co-existence be promoted in our century?

There were times during which it was believed that the unity of mankind will be consolidated by force exercised by the one or the other religion. Such a belief is not supported today anymore. I believe that the essence of religion is violated when force is applied in its name. In order to cultivate a more positive climate in the Christian-Muslim relations, the Christian-Islam dialogue must become more intense based on the study and the stressing of the essential anthropological principles of the two religions; a verse of the Koran, for example, (chapter 49, The Chambers, verse 13) reads: "O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you." As regards the terrible radioactivity of hate spread in various regions, the special duty of the conscientious Christians is to resist with initiatives of love. In the contemporary pluralistic society, the only possibility for peaceful co-existence is the acceptance of the distinctiveness of the other, the respect of dignity and the religious freedom of every person.

A woman Muslim refugee from Kosovo living nowadays in Albania is offering a gift to Archbishop Anastasios.

No violence in the name of religion.

He arrived in Albania in July 1991 as a Patriarch's Exarch. Nevertheless, "I said 'Christ is Risen' in order to establish a contact with the people. And I saw them crying. I heard overwhelming stories about how they kept their faith during these 23 years, about how they had been waiting for this day... A bit later, he set the minds of the Orthodox Christians of Albania at rest: "Do not worry; I do not believe that a forest is more beautiful when it has only one kind of tree. I know that it is a blessing if there are many trees and bushes provided they are healthy."

A relationship of love was established with the people of Albania as of the first moment; during the times when "nothing is a negative number. Not only do we have nothing, but we also face numerous difficulties: terrible mistrust, extremely harsh conditions. We face the unknown; we face hostility about religious life, people who are still under the influence of ideas with which they had been bombarded for three generations. One had to understand this, respect it and accept it. The Orthodox Christians' duty was, first of all, not to repeat the mistakes of the past".

He tried to strengthen and unite all the Orthodox Christians. His thought was that "this place which was deprived of the faith to God needs a correct faith to God. This place deprived of love needs honest and altruistic love." Furthermore, there were other religions to be faced by the Orthodox Church. "When you visit Tirana or other villages, you see these big blocks of flats called "the palace". There are 100 Muslim families living there and only 10 or 20 Orthodox Christian ones. And when Sarajevo is next to you, at the beginning of the 90s, you are thinking what a terrible tragedy it would be to have such hate amongst us."

The burden of responsibility was big. "It is one thing to talk theoretically about dialogue and co-existence and quite another to have a feeling of responsibility towards the people entrusted to you by God. We wanted to be the architects not only of co-existence but of fraternisation as well. There is the theoretical dialogue between religions, but there is also a dialogue of life when you co-exist with people of other religions. What the Orthodox Church consciously tried and managed to achieve here was co-existence, religious tolerance as well as cooperation in the common issues of a society that must once again follow the path towards justice and love."

This co-existence is experienced by the Albanians. They see actions and not only theory; they experience the idea of "sharing". "Our first aid went to the north, where most of the people are either Catholics or Muslims. We said that we share our bread without asking who you are, what you are, whether you are good, bad, whether you believe as I do or not... This is Orthodoxy. The example given by Christ is the example of the Samaritan. It is not a coincidence that Christ uses in this parable a person of another religion and tribe as a model of love. And there he talks about a kind of love that knows no borders. This is Christian love."

Albania has changed since then. The country is entering a new era, but the crises still continue. "I believe that these are crises of a juvenile character and not the crises of an aged state. This is why there are outbreaks that take you aback. A state in continuous fermentation -this is Albania today. The quest is also continuous. There are improvements, but the pace is slow. We have achieved a multi-religious society, peaceful co-existence and cooperation. What I would not like is to see the other interests, the national ones or whatever else, in the Balkans using the oil of religion for aggressive purposes. The oil of religion is to heal the wounds and soften the hearts; to help people find hope."

The danger he describes is related to "those factors that incite the turmoil. It is easy to seek allies in a conflict. But if you seek the religious feeling as your ally, then you betray it and, furthermore, you create many adventures. No war, no injustice, hostility or violence is justified in the name of religion. We have to work towards peace. In order to have peace, infrastructure is needed. This is what we have been building patiently for so many years helping to raise the standard of living, of thought, education, health and civilisation. All these are infrastructures for peace that help people to find their dignity."

In the beginning there was the temptation seen in the bitterness of the people tortured by the previous regime. "This bitterness sought ways to be expressed," Archbishop Anastasios recalls. "The first thought of the ones that were persecuted was to get together to fight back. This happens everywhere. We resisted. We said that we are not going to create a front against people having a different theory about the world. We will be pioneers in this: we will treat each person with respect regardless of what they believe and whether they believe or not."

Anastasios' belief that "the only way to cultivate peace is to respect the other" is deeply rooted. This belief was the starting point and it became the basis for the future. They stood by the refugees of Kosovo as of the first moment knowing that the majority are Muslims. Most of the students of the Theological Academy , priests, used to hide the cross inside their clothes so as not scare them. They set off with only one piece of advice: "Use the language of love. It is understood by everyone."

Nowadays, the Orthodox Church of Albania has a big percentage of people coming from other religious communities or from atheist families. The term 'atheist' does not scare Archbishop Anastasios. "Someone who is self-described as an atheist may be closer to God than I who appear and am His representative. The borders between good and bad are found in our hearts. It depends on which of the two takes the lead each time. This element of humility is a basic element of Orthodoxy. It goes hand in hand with freedom and love."

(Lambrini Stamati, ΤΑ ΝΕΑ , 13.10.2001)

* Also General Director of Apostoliki Diakonia of the Church of Greece

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