LA, ALBANIA — FILE MEKA, a Muslim, is one of 5,000 Albanians who journey each year to the 14th-century Roman Catholic shrine of St. Anthony, a brisk two hours' hike up a mountain near this village.
Rebuilt recently, decades after it was blown up by the former Communist regime, the shrine seems to know no religious boundaries. Mrs. Meka says she comes here to feel the presence of God. Last year, she says she had to be driven up the mountain because she was unable to walk. This year, she made the voyage on foot - her health was regained thanks to prayers she said were answered at the site.
The pilgrimage is hailed as one of the many signs of religious tolerance in Albania, where before and since the reign of communism people have attended one another's religious feasts, visited one another's place of worship, and even shared the same cemeteries. This mutual respect among Albania's religious communities, nearly unique in the Balkans, has shielded the country from the religious hatred that has been so divisive for many of its neighbors in the former Yugoslavia.
Many say the tolerance stems from the fact that there is little religious passion in this tiny country, where former dictator Enver Hoxha imposed an atheistic rule after World War II that persisted until 1991. Seventy percent of the population is Muslim, 20 percent Orthodox, and 10 percent Roman Catholic, but many Albanians seem to claim closer affiliation with a secular belief in "Albanianism" - Albanian nationalism - than they do with any faith.
"All people seem to have placed their nationality first," Thoma Dhima, of the Albanian Orthodox Church, explains. "Within our borders, we are all Albanian and for this reason we see each other as brothers" - brothers, he says, who have shared the same oppression, the same history - and now, with the arrival of a new era of this history, the same goal. "We are all searching for a better life."
This tendency to place nationalism first has deep roots. Albanians were the only Balkan people to have accepted conversion to Islam under 500 years of Ottoman Turk rule - a compromise said to have been made to avoid taxes and preserve their national integrity. Even the national hero Skenderbeg - who fought against the Turks in the 15th century - is said to have been born a Catholic, converted to Islam, and then died an Orthodox.
Whether Albania's religious tolerance derives from a true peace among the faiths or from the indifference fostered by secularism, religious leaders and government officials are concerned about the influx of foreign evangelical groups since it opened its borders in 1991. This onslaught of outside religions is the main threat, they say, to the balance that has survived here through the centuries.
ALBANAIAN legend tells of St. Kosmas, who came to the country from Greece to promote Orthodox religion and was killed in 1779 . He was killed by both Muslims and Orthodox as they struggled to resist the spread of Orthodoxy in their country.
Today, in what seems a similar struggle, the Albanian prime minister's office has set up an office of religious affairs to watch the more than 150 Christian religious groups that have come here from the United States and Europe, such as Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and Lutherans - as well as Islamic groups.
Many of these groups, says the office's director, Bardyl Fico, are "impostors" who seek to cash in on the desperate economic situation in Albania, where unemployment ranges between 16 to 18 percent and the average salary is about $60 a month.
"Religion here has become more and more of a business. Many of these sects come here to earn money," says Mr. Fico. "These sects have come here and they are creating a disarray and changing the base of the society's religion. They convert not through the conscience, but through the offering of gifts." Foreign religious leaders counter that they are in Albania for people looking for another faith, not to convert through pressure.
Fico tells of evangelical groups that build a church in a village where the population is entirely Muslim, and of the pouring in of aid from Islamic countries to build mosques and print copies of the Koran. But he also remembers the words of Albania's Catholic Cardinal, Nikolle Kolici, and reaffirms that Albania will always remain an example of "tolerance par excellence."
"Albanians are more than brothers," Fico says, quoting the cardinal, "and there is no devil who can come here to force those interests that seek to destabilize the peace that exists among our people."