Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Crypto-Catholics among Albanians

Roman Catholic Church
Village of Kravoserija
Southern Part of Independent Kosovo
September 8, 2008

Following up on yesterday's post on the report by Fatos Bytyci, "Out of hiding, some Kosovars embrace Christianity" (Reuters, September 28, 2008), I found an article by Maurus Reinkowski, a professor at Albert-Ludwig University of Freiburg: "Hidden Believers, Hidden Apostates: The Phenomenon of Crypto-Jews and Crypto-Christians in the Middle-East" (Dennis Washburn et al., editors, Converting Cultures: Religion, Ideology of Transformations of Modernity, Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2007, pages 409-433, pdf article).

In this article, Reinkowski has a bit on crypto-Catholic Albanians:
[Page 420:]

Certain regions of Albania and Kosovo show from the 17th through the 20th century a prominent occurrence of crypto-Christian groups. Their existence can also be related to the historical conditions of that region. In order to shake off Ottoman rule Albanian leaders forged frequent alliances with European powers -- with Venice in the middle of the 17th century, (Footnote 37) and from the late 17th century onwards with Austria and Russia. Ottoman authorities responded in certain strategically sensitive regions by transferring populations and laying greater emphasis on conversion. Steadily increasing tax obligations, due to the financial malaise of the Ottoman state, may have added to the pressure to convert (Footnote 38). The greater part of conversions in that region seems to have taken place for anything but reasons of conviction. A crypto-Christian (or to be more precise: Crypto-Catholic) culture developed in parts of the Albanian lands. Crypto-Christians had double names, Christian names in their domestic, circles, Muslim names in public; they went both to church (mostly in their villages) and to the mosque (when visiting the cities); they had their children christened and confirmed, but also circumcised; they got married using both the Christian and the Muslim rites; they observed Christian fasts, but also went to the Mosque during the Muslim month of fasting (Ramadan); they asked for the last rites and anointment by a Catholic priest, but were buried in a Muslim graveyard. In some villages the Ottoman tax collector encountered only Muslims (since they had to pay less taxes than Christians), but a commission seeking to levy in the same village recruits for the Ottoman army would meet only Christians (since they did not have to serve in the Ottoman army). (Footnote 39) One's religion could also change accord-

[Page 421:]

ing to altitude. During their stay in the plains in the winter months the crypto-Christians were Muslims, but in the summer on the mountain meadows, out of reach of the state, they were Christians (Footnote 40). Christian and Islamic practices were accessible to both religious groups and easily imitated. Christening, which was seen as a magical protection against spirits, sorcerers, wolves and the like, was used not only by Christians, but also by Muslims (Footnote 41). Catholic priests in the northern Albanian mountains enjoyed great respect with Muslims (Footnote 42). Pilgrimage sites and holy graves were shared by Christians and Muslims (Footnote 43). Islamic dervish sites, in Albania primarily maintained by the Sufi order of the Bektashis, were important for the Islamization of the Balkans and Anatolia, since they integrated old Christian pilgrimage sites into the Muslim cosmos. Christians were not kept away from these places of pilgrimage; the Bektashi holy sites seem even have to been made deliberately compatible to Christian pilgrims (Footnote 44).

How is this relatively high concentration of crypto-Christians in the Albanian lands to be explained? It would seem that the people of Albania were somehow prepared by their previous historical experiences for crypto-religious strategies. With the frequent shifting of this region between Catholic powers and the Greek-Orthodox Byzantine empire the local Albanian notables and population may have, already in pre-Ottoman (and thus pre-Islamic) times, acquired the experience of changing their affiliation to opposing confessions according to the given situation.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, on her journey in 1717 through the Balkans to Istanbul, met Albanians and expressed a kind of benevolent surprise at their lack of decisiveness in questions of religion:

[Page 422:]
But of all the Religions I have seen, the Amounts [i.e. the Albanians] seem to me the most particular. (. . .) These people, living between Christians and Mahometans and not being skill'd in controversie, declare that they are utterly unable to judge which Religion is best; but to be certain of not entirely rejecting the Truth, they very prudently follow both, and go to the Mosque on Fridays and the Church on Sundays, saying for their excuse, that at the day of Judgement they are sure of protection from the True Prophet, which they are not able to determine in this World. (Footnote 45)
(37) Noel Malcolm, Kosovo. A Short History (London: Macmillan, 1998), p. 118.

(38) N. Malcolm, pp. 118, 126, 131, 165. The Greek-Orthodox clergy was repeatedly authorized by the Ottoman state to collect church taxes from the Catholic population
as well.

(39) This anecdote is so popular that it may be found in several works such as R. Dawkins, Crypto-Christians 1933, p. 271; and Bardhyl Graceni, "Le crytpochristianisme dans la region du Shpat au cours de la derniêre periode de la domination ottomane," Studia Albanica 26.2 (1989): pp. 92-102. The principle source for these reports seems to be Edith Durham, The Burden of the Balkans (London: Nelson, 1905).

40. A. Bryer, Crypto-Christians (1983), p. 22.

41. Speros Vryonis, "Religious Change and Continuity in the Balkans and Anatolia from the Fourteenth through the Sixteenth Century," in Islam and Cultural Change in the Middle Ages, ed. Speros Vryonis (Wiesbaden; Harrassowitz, 1975), pp. 127-140; N. Malcolm, Kosovo, pp. 129, 132; Isa Blumi, Rethinking the Late Ottoman Empire. A Comparative Social and Political History of Albania and lemen 1878-1918 (Istanbul: The Isis Press, 2003), p. 146.

42 P. Bartl, Ktyptochristentum (1967), P. 125.

43 Ger Duijzings, "Pilgrimage, Politics and Ethnicity: Joint Pilgrimages of Muslims and Christians and Conflicts over Ambiguous Sanctuaries in Former Yugoslavia and Albania," in Power and Prayer. Religious and Political Processes in Past and Present, eds. Mart Bax, Adrianus Koster (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1993), pp. 80-91.

44. G. Duijzings, Joint Pilgrimages, pp. 85, 88.

45. The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Compiled by Robert Halsband, vol. 1: 1708-1720 (Oxford, 1965), p. 319.
Despite Reinkowski's statement that "Certain regions of Albania and Kosovo show from the 17th through the 20th century a prominent occurrence of crypto-Christian groups," he later notes some doubts about this:
[Page 429:]

Two historians of the Balkans, Georg Stadtmueller and Stavro Skendi, have even gone so far as to claim that one would have been able to find crypto-religious groups everywhere in the Balkans where conversion to Islam took place. (Footnote 73) In opposition to this sweeping judgement, Ger Duijzings puts forward the strong argument that crypto-religious groups cannot persist over long periods. Kosovo's crypto-Catholics in the 19th century completely lost their knowledge of Christian dogmas and any consciousness of having been originally Christians due to the lack of a church infrastructure. Emissaries of the Vatican missionary institution Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, which intensified its activities in the 19th century maintained that these groups had persisted as crypto-Christians continuously from the 17th century onwards. But indeed, only after these crypto-Catholics had been discovered by European emissaries, travelers and missionaries, did these people begin to perceive themselves in these terms. (Footnote 74)

73 Georg Stadtmueller, "Die Islamisiertmg bei den Albanern," Jahrbuecher fuer die Geschichte Osteuropas 3 (Munich, 1955), pp. 404 -429; S. Skendi, Crypto-Christianity (1967), pp. 227-246.

74 Ger Duijzings, Religion and the Politics of Identity in Kosovo (London: Hurst, 2000), pp. 87, 92, 103.
Such is the state of the scholarship on this issue -- or at least the state of this scholar's scholarship. Crypto-Catholics did continuously exist at least as late as the 17th century but may have lost their memory of having once been Catholic between the 17 and the 19th centuries, until reminded of this fact by a late-nineteenth-century re-Catholization effort that got interrupted by the twentieth century. On Reinkowski's evidence, crypto-Catholicism may be a discontinuous phenomenon but nevertheless a phenomenon.

Apparently, the 'crypto-Catholics' are remembering again, and yesterday's blog entry recorded a mild complaint in the form of this comment by a Muslim calling himself "Ipi" who posted from Canberra, in Australia:
Christian mercenaries come to Kosova full of cash, bearing gifts and are targeting the poor and vulnerable . . . pathetic and sad (May Allah have mercy on my brothers and sisters, for money has poisoned their spirit).
Ipi later deleted the comment, perhaps after re-reading the post and deciding that former Christians who pretended to take on the guise of Muslims to obtain relief from the high taxes levied on Dhimmis could hardly be blamed for shedding that guise because of cash or gifts . . . if that's even what is happening.

Anyway, Ipi offered no evidence for this accusation, but if it were true, might not this make these 'reverts' to Catholicism crypto-Muslims?

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At 9:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous Father said...

In High Albania (1909) Durham tells of one village where, the priest refusing to open the church for a wedding until after he had finished his lunch, the Christians marched to the nearby mosque which welcomed them and their celebration. The village remained thereafter Muslim.
If I recall aright, she blamed the indifference of the Catholic Church, especially of the Franciscans, for extensive conversions to the Muslim religion.

At 4:03 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, AF, for the note on Edith Durham's anecdote. I wonder why the Church was so indifferent.

Jeffery Hodges

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