I grew up in the former Yugoslavia and in Kosovo. Under communism, we never talked about our religious identity, even though we knew that as Catholics we were different from Muslims. When we were playing as children, we’d sometimes tease each other about our different religious backgrounds, but we’d make up immediately and carry on playing, because we were friends, sharing everything together.
In secondary school I was the only Catholic in the class; but there was never hostility in our class on the grounds of religion. I can say that I was accepted and loved by all my classmates and by my teachers. My Muslim friends and I did maths homework together in each other’s houses, and would end up laughing and drinking tea. At Bajram (Eid) we would go to Muslim families to eat very good baklava, and for Easter we would give them eggs that we coloured red, our custom.
After secondary school I made up my mind to become a nun – the term in Albanian is a “sister of honour”. It wasn’t at all easy to tell others this news. For my family it was hard because I was very young and I was separating from them. I was sacrificing a career and a future family.
The Catholic community in the church was happy for me and about my decision. What’s more, my friends supported me totally in the journey and in the commitment to God. My friends would tell me: “Lucky you … you know where you are going and what you are going to study, and we don’t know what we’re going to do.” Even after I put on the habit of a nun I stayed in contact with my friends and my circle. It was a joy to meet them and to compare our life experiences. My Albanian people, whether Catholic or Muslim, have great respect for nuns.
We Albanians agree that we are descendants of Illyrians who embraced Christianity directly from the apostles of the first century AD. Not many nations have a two-millennia-long history of Christianity. The misfortune was that under Ottoman rule, many people abandoned faith in Christ to save the lives of family members. But as Albanians we are one nation and an example of how different religious groups can co-exist in one nation. In Albania particularly, Albanian Orthodox live in harmony with Catholics and Muslims.
In Montenegro, too, where I am now, religious tolerance is exemplary. But there are always people who try to play on our differences to achieve their own goals. As we know, the Balkans is the line that separates East and West and the tensions will never cease. Islamic radical movements are something we never had before. Problems like these come from abroad.
On one occasion, during my trips from Kosovo to Albania when I was studying theology, some Albanian boys – who were Muslims – told me that they don’t respect Skanderbeg, the great Catholic leader who fought against the Ottoman Turks, or even Mother Teresa. These two figures are venerated by Albanians all over the world. This saddened me very much, because I realised these were not the Albanian brothers I knew before.
There is another new problem. Muslim families who in recent years have gone back to Catholicism, the religion of their ancestors, after many years of preparation and sacrifice, are now being subjected to prejudice from other relatives who remain Muslim. I know of houses being burnt, of looting, discrimination in school and threats. Why should people not have freedom of religion, to live a peaceful life guided by God?
In Kosovo, in the first years after the war and subsequently, nuns have helped people – Muslims or Catholics equally. They helped materially with food, rebuilding houses, shelters, and collecting funds to help the needy. In Albania itself, particularly after the fall of communism, nuns and clerics helped restore religious life in society.
In Kosovo during Yugoslav times, a few people did not distinguish between Catholic and Orthodox nuns; they might insult nuns as Serbs (who are Orthodox), not realising nuns could be Albanians. Now people are familiar with Catholic sisters, not least because we go to hospitals, old peoples’ houses, social centres and university.
People feel the protective hand of God wherever they see the service of religious sisters. I am glad that God chose me to be one of them.