The history of Christianity in Kosovo goes all the way back to the Apostle Paul. In his Letter to the Romans (Rom 15:19) he writes that during his travels he has proclaimed the Gospel to the people of this region.

History has not always been kind to the Kosovans; they have suffered persecution, oppression, expulsion. But many remained faithful to Christ throughout the centuries, even during the worst times of the Ottoman Empire, and again later under the communists. Today the Catholic Church in Kosovo has around 66,800 faithful, 57 priests and 87 religious sisters in its 24 parishes.

Bishop Dodë Gjergi knows many of them personally. He has observed a very special form of the new evangelisation here. ‘It is a re-Christianisation’, he says.

‘For many people were once baptised, and now they want to publicly return and openly profess their Catholic faith. It is not that they are leaving Islam behind them, but rather they realise that they were never truly Muslims. But only now can they openly say this.’

During the centuries of oppression, the majority of Kosovo Albanians were pressured to outwardly convert to Islam. All that was required of them was to publicly recite the first sura of the Koran. Yet within their own homes many of them secretly continued to practise their Catholic faith, clinging to the hope that one day they would once again be able to publicly pray the Our Father and openly attend Holy Mass. They are known as ‘crypto-Catholics’.

Now they want to bring their hidden religious practice out of the twilight of history and into the daylight. This hidden religious life has forged a particular characteristic of the national identity in Kosovo, in their special understanding of religious freedom and tolerance. But during the war of independence a more radical strand of Islam was introduced, promoted by Saudi Arabia, which is now leading to new tensions.

Blessed Mother Teresa embodied this tradition of tolerance and love of neighbour. As a young woman on the threshold of life changing decisions, she came to the shrine of Our Lady of Letnica in Kosovo. ‘We want to raise awareness of her message of love and tolerance’, says Bishop Dodë. ‘We see all men as our brothers, including those who see the world differently.’

In the face of the refugee crisis in the Balkans, his words do not just apply to the Kosovans. This is bringing new challenges to the impoverished Church in Kosovo – and ACN is standing by the Church in her mission.

This article can be found in Mirror 0416.