Some Kosovo “crypto-Catholics” embrace their faith publicly

September 29, 2008

Outside the Catholic church in Kravoserija, 8 Sept 2008/Hazir RekaSome of Kosovo’s “crypto- Catholics” are slowly coming out of hiding. Pressured into accepting Islam centuries ago by the victorious Ottoman Turks, some families in this Balkan country maintained their Christian customs in private while passing as Muslims in public. Some of them returned to their ancestral faith in the late 19th century, after the Ottomans withdrew. Now, almost 10 years after Serbian rule ended, more have decided to go back to Roman Catholicism. The Church says the conversions now run into the thousands.

Finding these Catholics for a feature was not too hard. At a local church in Pristina, priests provided information on people who had converted and names of other churches where it had happened.

The Sopi family in the central Kosovo town of Klina, which was highlighted in the feature, was initially wary of talking to the international media after a story in the local newspaper led their Muslim neighbours to regard them differently now. But after a long chat, they agreed to an interview as long as it was neither taped nor photographed.

There have been 32 converts in the Sopi family over the past few months. “We have asked the authorities to give us land to build the church and have our own cemeteries,” said Ismet Sopi. He has had no answer yet. The issue of a Christian cemetery was especially important because burials had to be two-faced affairs in the past, he explained: “When someone died ,we were prayed as Catholics in our homes, but at cemeteries we had the imam for the burial ceremony.”

Inside the Catholic church in Kravoserija, 8 Sept 2008/Hazir RekaThe village of Kravoserija in the south of the country has had a Catholic Church since 2005. People there are happy to be visited by the media. There are five people in the village who have the keys to open the new church and everyone there has their telephone numbers. “Call Ismet or Beke,” said a man working in his yard when I asked how to visit the church. Ismet was not home that day but Beke answered promptly. “Go at the church and I’ll be there in two minutes,” he said. And he was.

In the Kosovo capital Pristina, a new cathedral named after Nobel Peace Prize winner Mother Theresa, an ethnic Albanian nun born in neighbouring Macedonia, is under construction. It was raining on the day I went to visit, but that didn’t stop the work. “I’m a Muslim and I’m fasting during this holy month of Ramadan. But work is work,” said Nexhat Osmani, a worker at the cathedral site. Once it is finished, the 70-meter-high cathedral will be the tallest building in town.

Around 90 percent of the Kosovo’s Albanian population is Muslim, with just four percent Roman Catholics.

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