Photo: BIRN.

Prizren debates interethnic and religious tolerance

A public forum in one of Kosovo’s most religiously diverse cities, Prizren, was held as part of the #debatpernime series, bringing together religious officials, experts, politicians and the public to discuss interethnic and religious tolerance.

Mosques, orthodox and catholic churches sit just a few meters away from one another in the center of the historic city of Prizren. With this skyline in the background, the next forum in the  #debatpernime, or ‘debate for real’ series was held, opening up discussion on religious and interethnic tolerance in Kosovo, which will be aired on BIRN’s televised program Jeta ne Kosove on Thursday.

Lutfi Balleku, an imam of Prizren, and Ilarion Lupulovic, an orthodox priest, sat next to each other for the public debate.

Alongside them were Mytaher Haskuka, the mayor of Prizren, Jovana Radosavljevic from the NGO New Social Initiative, Agnesa Cipa-Laci and Bujar Laci, a catholic and muslim married couple, Abidin Shehu, a Sufi Dervish of the muslim community, Besa Ismaili, professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies and journalist Branislav Krstic.  

According to Balleku, interreligious and interethnic tolerance in Prizren has been shaped throughout generations, mainly due to the geographical and strategic position of Prizren.

He said that the Municipality of Prizren’s different regions are full of people of different ethnicities living together.

“Four roads run across Prizren. The Zhur region, Gora and Opoja, where Gorani and Bosniaks live, while Albanians live in the Anadrin, Zhupa and Suhareke regions,” said Balleku, who is from Prizren. “All these different habits and customs are integrated into the traditional, and they coexist beautifully in harmony.”

Further, Balleku said that today, as in the past, children born in Prizren grow up learning Albanian, Turkish and Bosnian at the same time, meaning people do not experience different language as unfamiliar, or consider others that speak them as foreign.

The orthodox priest, Ilarion Lupulovic, said that because of the multireligious and multiethnic image Prizren has, he was surprised that “in Prizren, many churches were destroyed and burned [during the March 2004 riots]. No one expected this. But most of the older citizens told us that this act was not done by the citizens of Prizren, but by people who came from abroad.”

“A long time has passed since then and, thanks to the Lord, we are now able to move much more freely,” Lupulovic continued. “We were told that they [Albanians] too are happy to see us back in city, and that once again this city has regained the features it had before the conflict.”

Photo: Fikret Ahmeti/BIRN.

Balleku said to Lupulovic that he missed the pleasure of moving freely in North Mitrovica.

Lupulovic replied that he “cannot walk freely in Gjakova, Drenica or even in Decan. We have no problems in Gjilan. I invite us to walk together and if something happens to you, then it will happen to me too.”

Balleku said in reply that the destruction and preservation of various religious sites in Kosovo and Serbia began long before the war.

“The Serbian regime destroyed 218 mosques during the war in Kosovo, and many mosques were also demolished in Serbia, something we would have liked not to have happened,” he replied to Lupulovic, noting that orthodox and catholic sites in Prizren were preserved in the early 20th century, despite the muslim community using these sites to practice their faith.

Mytaher Haskuka, the mayor of Prizren, said during the debate that coexistence in Prizren is part of the city’s identity, which he is proud of and works hard to cultivate.

“When you see all these historical monuments and you grow up with them around you, then you gain some sense of empathy and begin to identify with them,” said Haskuka. “I have regular meetings with everyone here, we met the priests here and talked about how these places can be opened for tourists, so that they have direct access, because these premises are of value for Prizren.”

Besa Ismaili, professor of English at the Faculty of Islamic Studies of the University of Prishtina, said that in other cities of Kosovo a similar culture should be established, and that the citizens should be familiar with and pay visits to the religious sites of all faiths in Kosovo.

According to her, this would remove prejudice, ignorance and lack of communication that Muslims may have entering a church and vice versa.

According to Ismajli, there are children who grow up without ever entering churches and mosques, despite the fact that a city like Prishtina has both of these religious sites in its center.   

“We live in a city like Prishtina where you expect that children grow up with the more critical and open minds, but who, in fact, do not understand the place where they live and have never visited these religious sites located across our country,” Ismajli said.

Jovana Radosavljevic, from the NGO New Social Initiative, stated that the main obstacle to interethnic tolerance, apart from political divisions, is Kosovo’s education system. According to her,  the curriculum at present has disabled the teaching of Albanian to Serbs and vice versa, which can result in miscommunication between youth in Kosovo who are unable to speak to their neighbors.

Radosavljevic also stressed that the lack of multilingualism in the media in Belgrade and Prishtina significantly contributes to the misinformation of the Serb community.

“In general, Serbs from Kosovo fear to come to the south, and most of them have never crossed the Ibar bridge either,” she said. “Likewise, most Albanians from the south have not crossed the bridge to come to the north, having the same fear and uncertainty of what will happen if they do so.”

Agnesa Cipa-Laci, a citizen from Prizren and member of the Muslim community, married a member of the Catholic community. She said that the tolerance in their family and in the city was inherited from their forefathers.

“I found Bubi [her husband] in Agimi [a cultural-artistic society in Prizren]. Diversity emerged from our ancestors because they visited each other during the holidays,” said Cipa-Laci. “They went to church and to the mosque. My marriage to Bubi is not something new in our families. Something else, a common thing, has united two of us, and that is music.”

Antigona Shestan, a citizen of Prizren who attended the debate, said she has Croatian descent, but was born in Prizren and never had any problem with lack of tolerance towards her ethnicity.

According to her, Kosovo is suffering problems as a result of the political officials who are preventing Kosovo’s economic advancement.

Mayor Haskuka added that the war in Kosovo was never a struggle between communities, rather it was imported from abroad, from Belgrade.

Belgrade “shall understand the crimes committed in the Balkans, especially in Milosevic’s time and accept that fact. Then, our vision towards European integration will be easier. In Prizren, people are characterized by their occupation and not ethnicity and religion,” said Haskuka. “If we listen to a Piranha farmer [an Albanian-inhabited region] and Novak [a Serb-inhabited region], their concerns are the same.”

Lupulovic said that Belgrade is not the only guilty party.

“Our diocese, during the conflict, publicly criticized some of the actions of the Milosevic regime. Father Sava and our diocese at that time defended the Albanian people. The Decan Monastery accepted 150 local Albanians to protect them physically, and with this action, we fulfilled our civic obligation,” Lupulovic said.

“I think that the crimes of Serbs solely are not the actual problem but, first and foremost, the KLA crimes as well. This society must be cleansed of the criminals among us and the Albanian people must face the crimes committed on their behalf,” continued Lupulovic. “The same thing should be done by the Serbian people, who should also face the crimes committed in their name.”

But Haskuka insisted that just as Europe did after World War II, Balkan states must first agree and accept their guilt if they want to move forward.

“After World War II, Germany, France and other countries defined who was guilty and what they were guilty for. We in the Balkans have three to four interpretations of history, and this is presenting a problem for the future. Without consensus as to what happened, we cannot go ahead, and here I think the key point is Belgrade,” concluded Haskuka.

Branislav Krstic, a journalist from North Mitrovica, was happy to see that an orthodox priest and an imam could debate openly.

“This is a new chapter in inter-religious and inter-ethnic relations – despite the fact that they disagreed with each other during the debate” said Krstic as the forum ended.

This debate was supported by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK.

18/04/2019 - 10:01

18 April 2019 - 10:01

Prishtina Insight is a digital and print magazine published by BIRN Kosovo, an independent, non-governmental organisation. To find out more about the organization please visit the official website. Copyright © 2016 BIRN Kosovo.