The growing role of religions in the Western Balkans
By Vatican News
More than thirty years after the end of the fierce Balkan War, the breakaway countries of the former Yugoslavia are still searching for ways to strengthen themselves internally, cooperate with each other and integrate with the rest of Europe. Part of this task involves motivating the diverse members of civil society to become protagonists in the development of their nations. This is the aim of the Smart Balkans project, which coordinates the countries of the so-called Western Balkans: Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia.
More than 100 representatives of non-governmental organizations, academics, researchers, journalists and activists, recently gathered at the "Elephants in Civic Space" conference in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. For two days they reflected on the real and concrete contribution that religions can make to strengthen civil society. Aware that religious communities have been systematically neglected in the restructuring of these nations, citizens today want to build bridges so that religions can contribute to development thanks to their spiritual and social backgrounds.
“In light of the general challenges faced by the Western Balkans countries, such as low economic development, slow transition, and problems with the rule of law, it is necessary to point out the contribution of religion and civil society in all these issues. Religion is vital in forming culture, self-awareness, and national identity in the Western Balkans. Therefore, it is essential to discuss its influence on all the areas above”, said Aida Daguda, the director of the Center for Civil Society Promotion of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Relations of trust and transparency
Although these nations are Muslim and Orthodox majority countries, Vatican Radio and Vatican News were invited to contribute to the discussion. From his Catholic perspective and as an expert in strategic communication, Father Felipe Herrera-Espaliat, editorial coordinator of Vatican News, proposed to strengthen trust between faith communities and the media. "From my experience, I can testify to how much the social and civic contribution of institutions, religious and secular, improves when they cultivate their relations with the multiplicity of their stakeholders in a sustained, transparent and responsible way. An institution needs to be aware that its decisions and actions affect other organizations, both public and private, in various ways. They are all stakeholders amongst whom relations of trust must be established. But trust is not improvised, and institutional relationships are not built overnight. They must be cultivated with actions, patience, sincerity of intentions and, above all, with listening and reciprocal knowledge”, the priest pointed out.
Also taking part in the conference was Ylli H. Doçi, European Director of the International Leadership Foundation, a prominent pastor of the Evangelical Alliance of Albania, who is also currently Chairman of the Inter-Religious Council of Albania. In his speech, Doçi highlighted the social commitment of the Christian churches in their service to the marginalized and their constant struggle for justice, traits which, according to him, reveal how religions are true allies of societies. "One of the biggest challenges that Christian communities are experiencing in today's society is that they are misunderstood, as if they were obscurantist religions, as if they had out-moded ideas about life, as if they were against freedom of life and expression of life in different ways, when in reality we are supposed to be the salt and light of society. If they knew us Christians, based on the Word of Jesus, they would know that we are here to be a blessing for them," the evangelical pastor stated.
Challenges for faith communities
At the conclusion of the conference "Elephants in the Civic Space", the participants appreciated the tenor of the debate and the new perspectives that will allow for the broadening of cooperation between faith communities and the empowerment of civil society. One of the main challenges is to promote the participation of the younger generation. This was expressed by Gjergj Nikaj, representative of the Institute for Environmental Policy from Albania, for whom "education is a challenge, as is the migration of young people, who do not find a point of reference in their country. Religions and civil society organizations must make life more attractive so that people can stay with dignity in their country, helping people to find a cultural reference and a religious identity that allows them to feel they belong to something.
The Smart Balkans project, funded by the Norwegian government, seeks to empower civil organizations to play a stronger and more active role in creating peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development.