by Antonina Zhelyazkova

The Islamisation of the Albanians and its impact on the Albanian religious identity... (8)

St. Skendi, who has studied Crypto-Christianity, considers that fear of persecution was by no means a reason for the conversion of Albanians to Islam and the emergence of dual faith. They were rather led by their wish to evade paying per capita tax and benefit from proselytism, namely - to be given a post in the military administrative hierarchy of the Ottoman state.73  Indeed, from the middle of the 17th century the Sublime Porte found out the only measure by which to punish the insurgent Albanians - through a drastic increase in taxes. If the tax levied on the Christians in the Albanian communities in the 16th century amounted to about 45 akçes, in the middle of the 17th century it ran up to 780 akçes a year. In order to save the clans from hunger and ruin, the Albanian elders advised the people in the villages to adopt Islam. Nevertheless, the willingness of the Gegs to support the campaigns of the Catholic West against the Empire, did not abate. In his report to Cardinal Gozzadino, the Albanian bishop and writer Pjetër Budi informed in 1621 that scores of men in Albania, Christians, but also Muslims, were ready to take arms, given the smallest help from the Catholic West. 

In this context, the motives for the complex dual religious identity of the Albanians become clear. Emblematic is the case of the Crypto-Christians inhabiting the inaccessible geographical areas around Berat, Shpat and Gnjilane (Alb. Gjilan). Undisturbed by the Ottoman authorities, the people from Shpat and four villages near Gnjilane maintained for a long time their religiously dualised existence. The central power came to know about them only in 1846, and by chance, when two recruits from these parts declared they were actually Christians, hence could not serve in the Ottoman army. The Sublime Porte conducted an inquiry and then, forced by circumstances, the local people, guided by their priest Antonio Markovi?, openly declared themselves to be Christians. Those who survived the ensuing repression were exiled to Asia Minor. As for the Crypto-Christians from Shpat, some five thousand people, they were able to revert to the Orthodox faith, without risking their lives, only in 1897.74

A fairly accurate picture of religious self-awareness in Albania is presented by the general consul of Belgium in Thessaloniki in 1888. According to his statistics, the proportion of religious believers in Albania was the following: Geg Muslims (Northern Albania) - 370,000 people, Tosk Muslims (Southern Albania) - 250,000, Catholics - 253,000, and Orthodox Christians - 150,000.75  In fact, there probably are some incorrect data in this statistics, because in the beginning of the 20th century the Muslims constituted 70 per cent, the Orthodox Albanians - around 20 per cent, and the Catholics - 10 per cent of the total population.76  According to the latest census held in April 1989, the population of Albania is 3 182, 417 persons, the same proportions of Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Catholics being revealed. With reference to Albanians' religious indifference, E. Biberaj points out that Albanians favour their ethnic-national identification, rather than their religious one. The modern Albanian is often heard saying: "The religion of the Albanians is Albanian-ness."77

73 Skendi, St. Balkan cultural studies. New York, 1980, pp. 241-246.
74 Bartl, P. Op. cit., p. 120.
75 Steen de Jehay,Cont F. van Den. De la situation l?gale des sujets ottomans non-musulmans. Societ? Belge de Librairie, Bruxelles, 1906, p. 419.
76 Pano, N. The process of democratization in Albania. -In: Politics, power, and the struggle for democracy in South-East Europe, ed. by K. Dawisha and B. Parrott. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997, p. 287.
77 Biberaj, E. Albania - A Socialist Maverick. Westview Press, Oxford, 1998, p. 10.