Traditionally, Christians in the West celebrate the Christmas holiday on 25 December -- decorating their homes, exchanging gifts, and attending midnight church services. In Kosovo this year, thousands of Muslim Kosovar Albanians will again be attending midnight Mass along with their Christian neighbors.
Prague, 16 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Dom Nosh Gjolaj, a priest at St. Ndou Roman Catholic Church in the Kosovar capital, Pristina, expects overflow crowds this Christmas for the traditional midnight Mass celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.
That's not remarkable. Across the Western world and wherever Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians live, huge numbers of people -- including many who ignore church much of the rest of the year -- pack churches for the holiday, one of the two most important holy festivals in the Christian year.
What is remarkable is that about 10,000 members of Father Gjolaj's midnight congregation will be young Kosovar Albanian Muslims. Thousands more are expected at Catholic churches in other towns and cities across Kosovo.
What's more, the custom is welcomed by the Catholic clergy and generally smiled upon by Muslim religious leaders.
Father Gjolaj says he does not know how or precisely when the custom of interfaith visitation began in Kosovo. He said he would like to see the phenomenon studied by social scientists: "When it started, I don't know, [at least] since I've been here for the past 11 years. But it is obvious that massive participation began before the war. I think we're talking about approximately 10,000 people, most of them standing inside the church's front yard, since there was not enough place for all of them inside."
More than 90 percent of Kosovo's 2 million people are Muslim. Kosovo has been under UN administration since 1999, when a NATO air war ended a Serbian campaign of ethnic cleansing aimed at Albanians in the province.
The Kosovar Muslim interest in Christmas signals neither an abandonment of Islam nor the adoption of Christian belief. Blerta Krasniqi plans to attend Christmas Mass at Father Gjolaj's church this year. She's a Muslim who lives in Pristina.
"It is a fact that I will participate because I have friends who are Catholics. It doesn't have to mean that since I'm a Muslim I won't go. I go because of my friends and that's it. Our religion teaches us not to hate other religions, but we go to celebrate together because Catholics are Albanians just like us," Gjolaj said.
Albanians in both Kosovo and in Albania proper have long expressed pride in their religious tolerance, a tolerance that survived more than 50 years of communist rule, when the official religion was atheism. And that flourishes even now when Islamic terrorism and the Western war on terrorism have given new currency to fears of a "clash of civilizations."
The president of the Islamic Union in Kosovo, Naim Ternava, says he regards the custom as benign, an honoring of both faiths by youthful churchgoers.
"Their participation at Catholic churches speaks of tolerance fed by Islam toward other religions. Religiously, we are allowed to be present inside the churches, not to do Christian ceremonies, but only to be present, to respect other religions. Therefore, the participation of Muslims on Christmas Eve gives a strong message that Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance, respect and honor towards other religions," Ternava said.
Other signs of ethnic Albanian Muslims' comfort with the Catholics in their midst stem from both recent and more ancient history. Among the two most important historical personalities to Albanians are the 15th-century national hero Gjergj Kastrioti-Skenderbeu, a Catholic who fought for liberation from the Muslim Ottoman Empire, and the Catholic nun Mother Theresa, the world famous ethnic Albanian who was beatified at the Vatican earlier this year.
Kosovar Albanians also remember that it was the United States and NATO -- and not other Muslim nations -- who came to their rescue in the 1999 war over Kosovo.
Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova, who keeps a portrait of Pope John Paul II on his office wall, has won both Muslim and Catholic support for a proposal to build a Roman Catholic cathedral in central Pristina.
And the warmth is reciprocated. A young Albanian Catholic speaks to our correspondent in Pristina: "I am Nyrton Dedaj, a Catholic from Peja. Not only now, but even before the war, a big number of Muslims took part during the Mass. After the war, the participation is growing, and this is a very nice custom. We celebrate together, contributing to each other. After all, we're one nation. We don't look at our religious differences. We respect them, be they Catholic or Muslim. It is tolerance."
Father Gjolaj says he thinks Muslims in Kosovo began attending Catholic Christmas as a kind of entertainment, a social happening that grew into a powerful statement of brotherhood and unity.
"I think that at some point [ethnic] Albanian youth in Kosovo didn't have any kind of entertainment, and they didn't spend much time together. So through Christmas they got together at the church's front yard. In this way, a custom was achieved. Another element is also important -- the fact that this nation lives in and is a part of Europe. Even more, it shows that Ilyrians, Albanians, are the seedbed of European culture. This is where European civilization and culture got started," Gjolaj said.
Islamic Union President Ternava concurs: "I wouldn't say that is only a custom, but then again, it's something that came out of our past, although not 100 percent. It is also something that came out of our religious lessons, as well, having in mind that Christian teaching also proclaims inter-religious tolerance. It depends on church or mosque leaders -- how much do they respect the principles of the Bible or the Koran?"
Whatever the motive -- entertainment, social custom, or religious statement -- the interfaith visitation appears to have taken tenacious hold in Kosovo. It has grown year by year and shows no sign of abatement.
(RFE/RL's Pristina bureau contributed to this report.)