Bishop Dodë Gjergji baptising an adult women at the Easter service in the Mother Teresa cathedral in Pristina  

“On occasion of the Conference “Help for the little flock: looking to the future together”, organised by the Catholic Church in Kosovo from 28th to 30th September in Pristina, Magda Kaczmarek, head of Aid to the Church in Need’s project department for Eastern Europe, has visited this partially recognised state. Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. Mrs Kaczmarek met some members of its very small Christian minority. She was especially impressed by the testimonies of the so-called Crypto-Catholics in Kosovo. 

“For some years now, the phenomenon of the Crypto-Catholics – people whose roots are not in Islam but in Christianity although they are officially considered Muslim – has become increasingly noticeable in Kosovo”, Mrs Kaczmarek remarked. In the 16th century the Turks forced this region’s population to convert to Islam. The majority took the new religion for fear of being discriminated but in their hearts they remained Christian. Many lived in the region of Rugova, where the former president of Kosovo, Ibrahim Rugova, came from. It is no secret that he was baptised shortly before his death. He gave a plot of land in Pristina’s city centre as a gift to Bishop Gjergji to build the new Co-Cathedral of Saint Mother Theresa. 

Around 50,000 Catholics live in Kosovo. The majority of the population is Muslim. Crypto-Catholics have realised that their forefathers were Christian and now they wish to go back to their Christian roots. “The number is growing, for example, Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, is a students’ city and Mass is celebrated for these students every Tuesday. The Church expects these young people to spread their faith in their close circles and later on to their families”, explained Mrs Kaczmarek.

Don Marjan Uka looks after the faithful in a parish located in a hilly region in central Kosovo. His Bishop engaged him to take pastoral care of the newly baptised, the Crypto-Catholics. Apart from Mass offerings Don Marjan has no income. His Bishop provides subsistence assistance. For the building of churches and parish centres Don Marjan relies on help from outside, such as Aid to the Church in Need’s support. When she visited him, Mrs Kaczmarek had the opportunity to meet some of these Catholics who are returning to the faith of their ancestors. “Every year in Easter and on the Eve of the Ascension some adults and their families are baptised. Families need to attend catechesis for a year to prepare for baptism. This is the case of Adnan and Rita, and their three sons Dritan, Fran und Aleksander (names have been changed for security reasons). Rita adopted this name when she was baptised – before that she had a Muslim name.” 

“Adnan’s family lives modestly, they have a fruit orchard, a piece of land where they grow vegetables, and a greenhouse with tomatoes and peppers. Unfortunately almost all tomato bushes have caught a disease and Adnan cannot sell them”, reported Mrs Kaczmarek. “Their home is very simple. Adnan has relatives in Germany and the United States who help him to survive by regularly sending money to his family. Adnan himself lived in Germany for some time and even though he had a comfortable life there, he chose to return to his homeland. He speaks excellent German and he is very active in the parish. He can see himself becoming a catechist in the future. His two boys are 8 and 15 years old respectively. 8-year-old Fran loves Maths, whereas 15-year-old Dritan is very intelligent though quite lazy when it comes to studying, says his father. But he takes very good care of his one-year-old brother Aleksander. 

Adnan told us the story of his family’s way to baptism. He said that the Christian faith is very deep. He takes solace in prayer. Compared to Islam, Christianity has a depth that is filled with God’s light. If he could he would pray day and night. It seems as though he wanted to make up for the years that, until his baptism, he officially lived as a Muslim. Sadly the faithful in this small village – one hour away from the capital – have no church. It is really necessary to build one, since it is difficult to meet in private houses. 

In the same village she also met Veton, a small business owner. He reported that his ancestors had always been Catholic but his family lost their way. “Before the Ottomans Islamised the region of today’s Balkans, we were Christians.” Veton has never been to a Mosque and was never religious. He is currently going to catechesis with his family, although is not sure when he will be baptised. At the time of his baptism he would like to assume the name of Pjeter (Peter), and he is already proud of that. His children aren’t sure whether they’ll take the step. They are already adults and are afraid that some of their friends might not understand their decision. This will be a long process even if people in Kosovo live together in peace. Whether Christian or Muslim, they are a nation. “Crypto-Catholics are not treated with disdain by Muslims – on the contrary, when someone is baptised they are congratulated. It is considered a big celebration, as the Catholic Church in Kosovo is well respected. Sadly we have learned that lately an ‘imported Islamism’ is coming into the country bringing an intolerant attitude towards other religions.”  

This article has been republished with permission from Aid to the Church in Need

Magda Kaczmarek is head of Aid to the Church in Need’s project department for Eastern Europe.