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Albania: Pioneers Path Leads Through Church-State Minefield

By Alban Bala/Don Hill

Three schoolgirls in Albania have been barred from attending their public school for insisting upon wearing headscarves as badges of Muslim modesty. The school's director says it is a simple matter of enforcing school rules. But RFE/RL correspondents Alban Bala in Tirana and Don Hill in Prague say the issue is a symptom of deep cross-currents in Albanian culture.

Tirana, 12 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Albania is searching for the proper role of religion in the nation's culture in 2001.

For nearly a quarter of a century until the fall of communism in 1992, Albania was a self-declared atheist state, where religious practice in all forms was banned. In recent weeks, three determined teenage school girls have drawn new attention to a revival of religion in Albanian life.

Against their high school's explicit regulations, they began last month to wear headscarves as symbols of Muslim modesty. The school's director, a Roman Catholic, barred them from classes.

The Albanian Constitution is clear: "Nobody may be forced or forbidden to take part in a religious community or in its practices, or to make public its ideas or beliefs."

The young women say they do not consider themselves part of any political movement. They decided to follow Islam on their own initiative, standing up to the opposition of their parents.

This is Ermira Dani, a 17-year-old student in the northeast Dibra region:

"To be a teenager with status as a minor, making such a decision for your life and then running up against many people, first against your own family and then against your school -- which is very important to me -- represents a huge difficulty, and I feel morally very hurt."

Since the days of the prophet Muhammad in the Western calendar's 7th century, there has been a powerful strain of community-building and accommodation in Islam that avoids religious-governmental confrontation. But in modern Islam, there also are states like Pakistan and Afghanistan -- often called "fundamentalist" -- that seek to base their governments on Sha'ria, or Islamic law. And then there is Turkey, where governments from Kemal Ataturk's in 1924 have fought to preserve a secular character.

Since it was founded almost a century ago, Albania has above all consistently been a country that chooses its own path. During World War Two, the Albanians, with a long tradition of religious tolerance, defied the Nazis and refused to allow persecution of Jews in their country. Under communism, they broke with the Soviet Union in 1960 over de-Stalinization. Albania became the most isolated state in Europe.

Now in post-communist times, the government of Prime Minister Ilir Meta wants to move his country westward.

The nation is guided by its traditional tolerance among its Muslim, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic religions. This tradition prescribes that as long as one is Albanian, one's religious preference is one's own business. With this goes a wariness toward any religious attitude -- fundamentalist Islam, for example -- that might be imposed from outside the country,

The director of the public school where Dani and her friends insist on covering their heads says: "They are free to attend a religious school if they want, but if they are to attend this one, they have to obey the rules."

Deputy Minister of Education Andrea Marto, a member of the ethnic Greek minority, told our correspondent that he agrees:

"There is no reason to be concerned. We are not violating human rights. Education Ministry norms, our constitution and law all require students to obey rules, including about how they may dress in school."

Albania has adopted the custom of many European nations of appointing an independent official to serve as an ombudsman, an advocate for the public. People's Attorney Ermir Dobjani is considering a defense of the headscarf students. But he says:

"This is a difficult problem to solve. The decision taken by the people's attorney's office will attract the interest of the domestic public and also of the international public."

Dobjani says he is not overly concerned by the public scrutiny. He plans to consult other, experienced, European ombudsman in deciding on his position.

Nearly 70 percent of the population is nominally Muslim. The resurgence in religion so far has been predominantly a movement among the country's young people.

For many months, Muslim students throughout Albania donned scarves without eliciting comment. But since the news reports about Ermira Dani and her schoolmates, the issue has become a public one.

In the latest development, the Directorate of Education in the capital Tirana has ordered public high schools to prescribe a school uniform for all students. The uniform will exclude any religious identification.