In a gleaming church dominating a spectacular valley as far as the eye can see, an Albanian from Kosovo recounts how his family proclaimed in broad daylight their Catholic faith, secretly maintained for centuries by their Islamized ancestors under the Ottomans.
Ismet Sopi emerged from the shadows in 2008, the year the former province of Belgrade declared its independence, a decade after a deadly war between Albanian rebels and Serbian forces.
"We are very happy, as if we had paid a debt to our ancestors who did not have the chance that we had to freely determine our faith," the 65-year-old retired journalist told AFP today. .
He says he was baptized in December 2008 with many members of his family, 36 people in total. "Until then, we lived as crypto-Catholics", "we were Muslims by day and Christians by night".
The Church of Saint Abraham, built on land donated by the local authorities with funding from the community, especially the diaspora, was inaugurated in 2016 in Llapushnik, in central Kosovo.
It overlooks the Drenica Valley, a region where the many graves of independence guerrilla fighters testify to the ferocity of the fighting against the Serbian forces dispatched by Belgrade in the late 1990s. The conflict left 13.000 dead, the vast majority of Kosovar Albanians, and only ended with a NATO bombing campaign.
In recent years, many "laramans" - an Albanian term meaning "multicolored", "multi-faceted" - have openly declared themselves Catholics. According to Ismet Sopi, in 2021 and 2022, 120 inhabitants of the region were thus baptized in the Saint-Abraham church.
It is impossible to know the total number of faithful who have come out of the closet, but Shan Zefi, vicar general of the diocese of Prizren-Pristina, estimates that Catholics represent between 2 and 3% of the 1,8 million Kosovars, 90% of whom are Muslims who practice liberal Islam.
After their conquest of the Balkans in the 63th century, the Ottomans imposed Islam on the population for half a millennium. Many of the Christians who had not fled had converted to escape pressure, said Shan Zefi, XNUMX, a scholar who has written about "laramans". Among the vexations, the particularly high taxes which struck the Christians whereas those which converted acceded to various social advantages. Many monasteries and churches had been transformed into mosques.
Converts have changed their names and participated in Islamic rites such as Aid al-Fitr which marks the end of Ramadan. But some families remained secretly faithful to the Catholic religion, from generation to generation, and prayed in hiding in their homes.
In the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Prizren, the historic cradle of Kosovar Catholicism, Shan Zefi believes that the movement is irreversible. "I think that the Albanians will dare to come out of the catacombs, to say they are free to belong to this or that faith".
For him, the Albanian population is anyway close to the Christian West. "Albanians are slowly discovering their true identity because their DNA has always been Western."
"Kosovo can serve as an example because its citizens show that peaceful coexistence between two religions is possible in today's world," adds analyst Lekë Musolli, director of Radio Alba.
The body that represents the Muslims of Kosovo (BIK) says in any case calm in the face of the phenomenon while elsewhere on the planet, in certain conservative Islamic countries, apostasy is punishable by heavy penalties, even the death penalty. .
"Faith and religion should not be politicized or divisive," she told AFP.
Like Catholics, Muslims value interfaith relations as good. "We have no subject of conflict, on the contrary, we have problems, challenges and projects in common", underline the Muslim authorities.
In a largely secularized Albanian society, the question of national affiliation matters as much, if not more, than religious affiliation. "The religion of the Albanians is + Albanianism +", says a proverb.
In Llapushnik, the coat of arms of the Vatican but also the double-headed eagle of the Albanian flag are stamped on the walls of the bell tower of the Church of Saint Abraham.
"Some had accused us of abandoning our nationality when we converted," underlines Ismet Sopi. "We wanted to show them that nothing had changed, that we were keeping our national identity", Kosovar and Albanian.
The Editorial Board (with AFP)