Mother Teresa: A Saint in Albanian Politics

September 05, 2016

Mother Teresa, perhaps the most iconic nun in the world, was just declared a saint. But why is she promoted as the “Mother of the nation” in Albania, a secular nation with a Muslim majority?

Mother Teresa’s portrait in the Supreme Court. Photo: Cecilie Endresen

A famous Albanian

The famous 1979 Nobel Peace laureate Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910–97) is now officially a saint, after a relatively speedy canonization procedure. What is less known is her status as “Mother of Albanians”. “We are Mother Teresa’s people”, says Albania’s president Bujar Nishani, and Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox Albanians have for many years referred to the blessed Teresa as a saint, their saint. Why is Catholic nun from Macedonia with an Indian passport promoted as the “Mother of the nation” in Albania, a secular nation with a Muslim majority?

In the formerly Stalinist, atheist and anti-Catholic Republic of Albania, representations of the nun and other Catholic paraphernalia often play a prominent role in the public sphere. Mother Teresa figurines, cups and keyrings are popular memorabilia, and the urban landscape abounds with statues and memorials. Her portrait, in her characteristic blue and white garb, is found on stamps and public buildings, and schools, hospitals, streets and churches have been named after her.

The University of Tirana has a Mother Teresa square, featuring a statue, and the central square of Saranda in the south, a city without Catholics, is called “Mother Teresa”. In Shkodër in the north, a statue of the nun has been put up between the mosque and the post office. In Durrës some Muslims protested against placing a new museum for the Catholic missionary at the foot of the stairs up to the mosque.

Albania was founded as a multireligious state (1912) and adopted one of Europe’s first secular constitutions (1922). A mere century later, Mother Teresa now functions as a patron saint of the Supreme Court in Tirana. The 14 judges sit facing her portrait, which covers the whole wall, with a poem titled “Prayer for the judges” urging them “to implement justice/Like King Solomon” in the Old Testament.

However, the prominence of Christian symbols does not mean that Catholicism has become an Albanian “public religion”. Instead, the way Albanian leaders position religion in public life is used to build a positive image and counter prejudice against a nation with a Muslim majority and a relatively dodgy reputation in the West. With a Nobel Laureate and Catholic saint in front, Albanians brand their nation as respectable and peaceful, worthy and Western.

From «spy» to saint

The connection between a Catholic nun in Kolkata and Albanian politics may not seem obvious to outsiders, and Mother Teresa’s road to ethno-national sainthood is as complex as it is paradoxical.

The vast majority of the Albanians in the Balkans define themselves as Muslims. Within Albanian national borders, less than a quarter of the population is Christian and less than 10 per cent is Catholic. Among ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia, the Catholic percentage is much lower, but the political symbolism is just as intense. In addition to statues, the centre of Prishtina already has a great Mother Teresa cathedral and a main road with the same name. When special stamps dedicated to Mother Teresa’s canonization were issued, Kosovo's Prime Minister Isa Mustafa emphasized that she had “emerged from the Albanian people, but now belongs to all humanity”. And all the present representatives of the Kosovo parliament have voted to declare 5 September, the date of her death, “Day of Charity”.

The dominant forms of Albanian nationalism since the 19th Century have been secular in character, with emphasis on uniting Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox Albanians. None of the two Balkan states with an ethnic Albanian and Muslim majority, Kosovo and Albania, have any official religion. Since Albania proclaimed independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912, the country has undergone secularising reforms, taken to the extreme during Communist rule (1944-1991). In 1967, Enver Hoxha proclaimed Albania as the first atheist country in the world and banned religion alltogether. All the religious institutions and many clerics were executed or sent to labour camps. Mother Teresa was considered an agent for the Vatican plotting to overturn the regime. Against this backdrop, the predominance of Catholic symbols in the Albanian public sphere is all the more surprising. How is it that Mother Teresa’s symbol is to be found all over the place, outside mosques, in court or in parliament? 

“Mother of the nation”

"By blood and origin I am Albanian. My citizenship is Indian. I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the whole world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the heart of Jesus".
                                                                           Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa herself rarely drew attention to her Albanian roots. She was born Agnesë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in 1910, in Skopje in the Ottoman Empire in Skopje, now the capital of Macedonia, in a Catholic Albanian family from Kosovo. She left home at 18 to join the Loreto Convent in Dublin. From 1929, she worked in India, where she became a naturalised citizen in 1951. Prior to 1989, the “angel of the slums” had never visited Albania because the Communist regime would not let her. When she was awarded the Nobel Peace Price in 1979 for her work among the poor, her Albanian connection became known internationally, and the regime feared she might become a rallying point for Albanian opposition.

After the legalisation of religion in 1990, politicians from all religions and parties instead hail Teresa as the “mother of the nation”. Her death in 1997 induced a period of national mourning. When Pope John Paul II on October 19, 2003, beatified her for her contributions as a Catholic missionary, the Albanian parliament ratified the date as a national holiday. The democratic government in Tirana even endeavoured to have her remains exhumed from her tomb in Kolkata in order to bury them on Albanian soil, until the Indian authorities finally turned down the request in 2009 and the Albanian state lost the hope that her relics could turn Albanian soil into a popular pilgrimage site.

The centenary of Mother Teresa’s birth in 2010 marked the beginning of the “The Year of Mother Teresa” and featured massive public celebrations in Albania. On the 15th anniversary of her death, Prime Minister Sali Berisha, himself a Muslim and a motor for Albanian membership in the Organisation (now Cooperation) of the Islamic Conference in 1992, told Parliament that Teresa had been “given to the nation by God”. Therefore, he insisted, every Albanian should “kneel in front of her” and say: “Thank you, Mother Teresa”.


Mother Teresa square outside the University of Tirana, with «Mother Teresa» written in the flowerbed. Photo: Cecilie Endresen

A Christian ID

To “kneel before Mother Teresa” has occasionally been taken quite literally. Foreign diplomats attending international political meetings in Tirana with Muslim, non-Catholic and atheist participants have occasionally been expected to kneel before a statue of Mother Teresa and kiss its feet.

Muslim Albanians rarely bat an eye at the Mother Teresa imagery. However, when Albanian authorities suggested that the new national ID cards ought to include a portrait of Mother Teresa holding a cross, the Muslim Community’s General Council objected that it would violate the constitutional separation of religion and politics. Muslims should not be forced to carry portraits of Catholic saints in their pockets, it declared. The elderly Council leader added that a crescent moon would have been equally unacceptable and sighed: “Legally, with this document, I am Christian”

“Not a Muslim country, but European”

Albania has also become a favoured destination for popes, whom Albanian leaders are eager to please. In April 2015, Pope Francis’ statue in the capital was unveiled by president Nishani and, like the former US president George W. Bush, Pope John Paul II has had a street named after him in the capital for many years.

The first papal visit after Communism took place in 1993, when the anticommunist Pope John Paul crossed the Adriatic and was met by enthusiastic crowds of Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic Albanians celebrating their new freedom of religion. During Pope Benedict’s papacy, Albanian presidents have paid several visits to the Vatican. When the government invited Pope Francis in 2014, his first visit to another country in Europe was Albania. On that occasion, Prime Minister Edi Rama – who is also the leader of the Socialist Party, the formal and not so soul-searching successor of Enver Hoxha’s Party of Labour – “came out” as a Catholic. As part of the highly mediatized preparations, the statue of the Blessed Mother was solemnly moved by helicopter from the university square in Tirana (“Mother Teresa”) to the airport (“Mother Teresa”).

Politicians from all parties and religions praised the ancient Vatican connection, and consistently addressed Francis as “Holy Father”, while the Prime Minister Pope called him a “universal spiritual leader”. Rama’s message to the world was that “Albanians should be respected for all the blood and suffering they had sacrificed for Christianity, giving forty martyrs to the Catholic Church only a few decades ago”. He was referring to clergy who had been killed by the Hoxha regime or died in prison between 1945 and 1974. Celebrating the martyrs, then, the fact that Rama’s political predecessors caused the martyrs’ death due to their attack on the Catholic Church was conveniently omitted. After the papal visit, 38 of these were officially recognized as martyrs and will be beatified this November.

"Albanians should be respected for all the blood and suffering they had sacrificed for Christianity, giving forty martyrs to the Catholic Church only a few decades ago".

                                                         Prime Minister Edi Rama


Posters of the clerical victims of Communism placed along Tirana’s Martyrs of the Nation Boulevard during the papal visit in September 2014. Photo: Cecilie Endresen

Rama also juxtaposed the influence of the Pope with the political power of Angela Merkel and proclaimed that the purpose of the papal visit was to assist Albanian “reunion with Europe”. Such a formulation echoes the idea that the nation is returning home to its European family after Ottoman-Islamic and later Communist captivity. He also took every opportunity to reiterate that “Albania is not a Muslim country, but European”. Francis seems to have internalized this debatable dichotomy. On the plane back to Rome, the pontiff told the press that Albania “is not a Muslim country; it is a European country. This was a surprise to me”. 

A Christian icon in the big picture

When the Albanian prime minister says that Albanians “do not deserve the prejudice that Muslim countries sometimes face”, he voices old and real concerns of Balkan Muslims. The problem is not only that many perceive the EU as an exclusive Christian club, which almost all the Albanians in the Balkans want to join. Since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the fear of Muslims being treated as alien, unwanted elements in “Europe”, and ultimately expelled or killed, still looms in the background. Anti-Muslim “purification” of the national body has been practiced several times in Christian Balkan states, for example when 400,000 Muslims were expelled from Greece to Turkey in 1923. The less known expulsion of the Muslim Albanians from northern Greece at the end of World War II is another example. So is the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Kosovo and Bosnia during the 1990s.

Today, Serbian ultranationalist myths portraying Albanians as a nation of jihadists thrive in various anti-Islamic circles across Europe. Such ideas are even heard in Albania itself, for example when an Albanian journalist with a Muslim surname in a national newspaper, Sot, glorified the Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik for killing 69 “pro-Islamic Quislings of Norway” in 2011 (the original article has now been removed from the internet). The writer had previously defended the Srebrenica massacre, demanded the closure of all the mosques in the country, and recommended forced conversion to Christianity or expulsion. Today, when Donald Trump warns that Muslims should not be allowed to enter the US, Albanians know that would mean most of them.

The political worship of saints and popes reflects an old Albanian tendency to gloss over the country’s Islamic legacy to gain respect among Christian states. If a Catholic nun serves that purpose, it would not be the first time Muslims and Christians in the Balkans turn to elements from each other’s religions for help and protection. Decorating lampposts and taxis with Mother Teresa’s portrait is one way of doing that. With a Christian icon like Mother Teresa in front, Albanian leaders brand their nation as friendly, safe, and ‘Christian’. The use of Christian symbolism to build a positive image is particularly evident in highly mediatized settings – and in international affairs, directly related to such mediatization.

After the sanctification ceremony in the Vatican on Sunday, Mother Teresa is officially in Heaven by the grace of God, and by association, that gives “her people”, the Albanians, a higher status in this world.