By Besar Likmeta
“The announcement was a bombshell,” said Elvis Naci, imam of Tirana’s Tabakeve mosque, adding that the council of the Muslim Community had yet to discuss the proposal and express an official position.
Speaking before the Eid celebration, Tirana Mayor Edi Rama said the municipality had a work plan ready to construct the new mosque behind the National Opera.
“The new mosque is needed by the Muslim community, which, like the two other faiths, merits its own house of worship in the centre of the capital,” Rama said.
A day later, the Minister of Transportation, Sokol Olldashi, suggested that Rama’s announcement was campaign politics, related to upcoming local elections due in May 2011.
Olldashi accused the mayor, who is also leader of the opposition Socialists, of deceiving people. The city centre plan designed by the French Architecture Studio, which the municipality had approved, did not include a mosque, he pointed out. “Behind the Opera two towers are planned, which…don’t look like minarets,” Olldashi noted.
The city council retorted by saying that the minister was “only throwing mud at the mayor.”
The request to build a mosque in the centre of Tirana has been a perennial demand of the Muslim community since the fall of the Communist regime in Albania in 1991.
In 1992, the then president, Sali Berisha, laid the first stone of a mosque to be constructed near Namazgja square, close to the parliament. However, construction was never completed after the speaker of parliament, Pjeter Abnori, a Catholic, contested the plans.
Arbnori said he feared that building a mosque so near parliament would make Albania look like an Islamic republic.
Meanwhile, over the last two decades, a Catholic and an Orthodox cathedral have both been built in the centre with official blessing, prompting Muslims to complain of discrimination.
When the government granted the Orthodox Church public land in 2002 to build a cathedral, former prime minister Pandeli Majko promised that a mosque would also get a go-ahead. But the promise never materialized.
Roughly 70 per cent of Albania’s population are Muslims. About 20 per cent are Orthodox and 10 per cent Catholics.
During the Communist era, in 1967, Albania was proclaimed the world’s first atheist country. Religion was outlawed and most mosques and churches were demolished or converted into warehouses or youth halls.
The regime often blamed five centuries of Ottoman rule and Islam for the country’s economic backwardness, a belief which still lives on in the country’s political and cultural elite.