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In Kosovo, Ethnicity Outranks Faith

Europe: Although the province's residents are mostly Muslim, they identify primarily with their Albanian roots.


PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — When international peacekeepers announced the arrest a few months ago of three foreigners who ran an Islamic charity in Kosovo, fears quickly spread that the province was going the way of Bosnia, where Islamic fundamentalists appear to have gained a foothold.

The minarets of shiny new mosques--built with money from the Arab world--were springing up in Kosovo's villages and larger towns, just as they had in Bosnia-Herzegovina after its war. And, as in Bosnia, a number of Islamic organizations had set up shop, offering assistance to ethnic Albanian families traumatized by a 1999 Serbian campaign against them and proselytizing the more devout form of Islam practiced in the Arab world.

But appearances turned out to be deceiving. Although Kosovo, the U.N.-run province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic, has a similar profile to that of Bosnia--a large Muslim population grateful for help in the wake of a painful war--the similarities end there.

"The religion of Albanians is Albanian-hood," said Naim Trnava, the principal of the only madrasa, or Islamic religious school, in Kosovo. "We are Albanians, and we belong to the Muslim faith. And the greatest joy we ever had in our lives was the night the U.S. bombing started against Serbia."

Trnava, a typical ethnic Albanian in many respects, wore a dark business suit and tie as he talked in his roomy headmaster's office, which seemed devoid of any religious symbols. None of the accouterments of faith, such as the prayer rugs or wall plaques with Koranic verses on them that are typical among religion teachers in the Arab world, were in evidence.

Kosovo Albanians, who make up the vast majority of the population in the province, perceive themselves as Albanians first and Muslims second. They view Americans as their best friends because the United States used its military might to force former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to retreat from a campaign of "ethnic cleansing."

Probably more than any other place in the world where the majority of the population is Muslim, people here rallied to the support of America after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Posters still dot Pristina, the provincial capital, with photos of the World Trade Center's twin towers on fire and beneath them the words: "We Will Not Forget" and "Terror Can Not Win."

For their part, a number of Islamic charities see little long-term role for themselves in Kosovo. "The Muslims here behave like Christians," said Faris Haddaj Hadi, who runs the Saudi Joint Relief Committee for Kosovo, one of the largest of the Islamic charities operating in the province.

"They do not pray five times a day. They are not bad Muslims, but they have accepted living like in Europe," he said. "I think in 10 years it will be worse--there is no influence of Islam here. We will not stay."

Haddaj said the organization, which has contributed to the rebuilding of 11 mosques, won't undertake any more mosque construction and will remain in the province only to finish up other projects, such as the building and operation of a laparoscopic surgery clinic.

Intellectuals, politicians and religious figures agree that recent history as well as cultural traditions and the complex roots of the Albanian identity make the situation in Kosovo deeply different from that in Bosnia.

The 1992-95 war in Bosnia--which pitted Serbs, who are largely Eastern Orthodox, against Croats, who are largely Roman Catholic, and Bosnian Muslims--became focused largely on the religious differences among the three groups, because all of them were ethnic Slavs, sharing a common language.

In contrast, the Serbian campaign in Kosovo was brief, lasting just months, and the difference between the Serbs and the Albanians was primarily one of ethnicity.

Furthermore, whereas U.S. forces didn't get involved in the Bosnian war until after the slaughter of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995, they moved quickly into Kosovo. That forestalled the need for the Kosovo Albanians to turn, as the Bosnian Muslims had, to Iran and the Arab world for guns and moujahedeen fighters.

Albanians have long viewed themselves as a unique people whose very survival hinges on retaining a strong sense of their ethnic identity, regardless of their religious faith. There are many Catholic Albanians, primarily in Albania, and even a small number of Orthodox Albanians, mainly in southern Italy.

And, although Serbs blew up, shelled or torched about 225 mosques--more than a third of those in Kosovo, according to a Harvard art historian who recently testified at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague--the buildings had as much cultural meaning as religious significance for many Kosovo Albanians.

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