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The Balkans Appropriation of Mother Teresa

Gёzim Alpion

Editor’s note: The first portion of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report 16 (Spring 2008): 5-6.

Competing Macedonian and Albanian Claims

Almost immediately after Mother Teresa was “discovered” by the BBC’s Malcolm Muggeridge in 1968, various Balkan parties tried to “appropriate” her. But when the Albanian Catholic nun was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, the competition between several Balkan countries to claim her as their own “daughter” began in earnest. From that moment she was seen by many parties in the Balkans as a god-send, especially by Macedonian Slavs and her fellow Albanians, most of whom previously were blissfully unaware of her.

In the summer of 2003 an unholy war broke out between Macedonian Slavs and Albanians over Mother Teresa’s ethnic identity. It was then that the government of the Republic of Macedonia offered Rome a monument dedicated to her, which was to be a copy of sculptor Tome Serafimovski’s bronze statue of Mother Teresa, already erected in the Macedonian capital of Skopje. The proposal incensed Albanians.

The Macedonian government’s decision to dispatch the statue to Rome was the latest link in the long chain of honors Macedonia had been bestowing upon “its” Mother Teresa for several decades. On 26 June 1980, only six months after she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the government of Macedonia made Mother Teresa an honorary citizen of Skopje.

Albanians have always been uncomfortable with what they consider as Macedonian Slavs’ excessive veneration for Mother Teresa, but the monument was apparently the last straw. What upset the Albanians most was not the monument itself (after all, Macedonian Slavs had already dedicated a statue to Mother Teresa in Skopje shortly after her death in 1997), but the Cyrillic inscription which was allegedly intended to accompany the monument in Rome: “Macedonia honors her daughter Gonxhe Bojaxhiu – Mother Teresa, Skopje 1910 – Calcutta 1997.”

To prevent such an “injustice,” 38 noted Albanian intellectuals and politicians wasted no time in dispatching a letter to the Mayor of the Eternal City, Walter Veltroni. In their letter to Veltroni, Albanians emphasized that the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia had no right “to usurp the figure and deeds of Mother Teresa” simply because Skopje happened to be her native city. Mother Teresa was born there to ethnic Albanian parents on 26 September 1910. At that time Skopje was still under the authority of the Ottoman Empire. As for Macedonia, Yugoslavia, and Albania, such independent “states” did not exist in 1910.

Perhaps the mayor was heeding the Albanians’ advice not to be “part of . . . falsified history.” Or perhaps he simply wanted to avoid yet another typical Balkan squabble. Whatever the reason, Mayor Veltroni was sympathetic to the Albanians’ “predicament.” And so, much to their delight, the Macedonian Slavs’ “elaborate scheme” to “steal” Mother Teresa from them, her “genuine” ethnic brethren, was nipped in the bud.1

Macedonian Slavs and Mother Teresa

While the new Macedonia that emerged after the collapse of Yugoslavia is officially a multi-ethnic state, Macedonian Slavs still have the final say on how the country is run. In an effort to present themselves as a nation that can be taken seriously, Macedonian Slavs pay too much attention to “Macedonian identity,” which essentially means Macedonian Slav identity. This policy has hardly endeared non-Slavic communities to Macedonian Slavs, especially Albanians who make up 25.17 percent of the country’s population.2

Discriminatory practices apparent in governmental departments, the police force, and education were some of the causes of armed conflict in spring 2001 between the Macedonian state and Albanian guerrilla fighters, who demanded equal rights for the Albanian population. Fortunately, prompt intervention by the international community prevented escalation of the conflict, but this country may face further difficulties. The raging war of words on the ethnicity of Mother Teresa indicates that the two major ethnic groups in the Republic of Macedonia are becoming increasingly sensitive about and over-protective of their cultural heritage, history, and heroes.

Downplaying Nationality

Mother Teresa herself was never keen to mention her nationality when she talked to the press. There were occasions, however, when she made it absolutely clear that she was Albanian. So, for example, when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, she told curious international media that “[b]y blood and origin I am all Albanian” (emphasis added).3 Considering that Mother Teresa was always consistent about her Albanian origin, it makes no sense to argue that her descent is far from clear. Surely Mother Teresa was the best authority on the issue of her ethnic origin.

Macedonian Slavs have always been aware of the fact that, as far as her ethnicity is concerned, Mother Teresa never pretended that she was anything other than Albanian. All the same, this has not stopped some of them casting doubt on her Albanian roots. Macedonia has its share of Mother Teresa experts who are keen to score points over their Albanian rivals not only because, in their view, she spoke little or no Albanian but, more importantly, because during one of her visits to the Macedonian capital of Skopje she refused to give a straightforward answer when asked repeatedly if she was Albanian, Macedonian, Vlach, Serbian, or any other nationality. “I am a citizen of Skopje, the city of my birth,” she told reporters eventually, “but I belong to the world.”

For a devoted Roman Catholic like Mother Teresa, my “Skopje” did not necessarily mean the capital of the predominantly Orthodox Christian Republic of Macedonia. Nor did she refer to the city of her birth as “my Skopje” purely because it was inhabited by Albanians since ancient times. The possessive adjective “my” in this case refers to the Skopje of her childhood memories, something she was keen to emphasize repeatedly.

More importantly, perhaps, Mother Teresa referred to the city of her birth as “my Skopje” because of its 16 centuries of documented Catholic legacy. Ancient Skopje was one of the region’s thriving cities during Roman and Byzantine times. The Illyrians, like the Greeks, came into contact with Christianity during the Apostolic Age. Paul states in his letter to the Romans that “from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum I have fully proclaimed the good news of Christ.”4 Ancestors of present-day Albanians were among the first Europeans to convert to Christianity.

Abhoring All Things Albanian

Mother Teresa’s Skopje had its own bishop by the 4th century A.D. and since then some of the city’s Albanians have remained faithful to the teachings of Christ. For some Macedonian Slavs, however, an Albanian Mother Teresa apparently still remains unacceptable. Macedonian Slavs have always been eager to denigrate anything Albanian, the main aim of which is to deny Albanians their Illyrian descent5 and to present them as “uncivilized.”

The constant onslaught on Albanian history, language, culture, and tradition waged by numerous Serbian, Montenegrin, and Macedonian Slav scholars has been frequently challenged, but never more seriously than in the case of Mother Teresa. Her emergence as an international humanitarian icon inevitably shattered as never before the Serbian myth that Albanians were “barbarians.” How could someone like Mother Teresa, who came to epitomize the best of human spirit in a century dominated by savage wars and bloodshed, come from “Albanian stock”? Surely, a nation of “thieves,” “hooligans,” “thugs,” “arsonists,” “kidnappers,” “drug dealers,” “rapists,” “human traffickers,” and “pimps” (some of the derogatory terms used by Serbian and Macedonian propaganda to demonize Albanians) who have always caused “problems” among Slavs in the Balkans, “initiated” the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and are currently posing a grave danger to Western civilization with their “obvious” links to the international mafia, could not produce a dove of peace like Mother Teresa. It is only logical, therefore, that Mother Teresa was not, could not, and should not be Albanian. If she could not be a Macedonian Slav, a Serb, or a Croat, she must certainly be a Vlach, a Roma, a Venetian – anything but an Albanian.

The news from the Vatican that Pope Paul II was to beatify Mother Teresa in October 2003 obviously upset Serbs and Macedonian Slavs who had been trying hard to vilify Albanians as Muslim terrorists, especially the guerrilla fighters in Kosova and Tetova in Macedonia. As far as those who generated, used, or hid behind Serbian propaganda were concerned, a Catholic nun like Mother Teresa, who was venerated as a saint by millions of Christian and non-Christian believers and secular people worldwide when she was alive and who was well on the road to canonization only six years after her death, was not, could not, and more importantly, should not be Albanian.

That some Macedonian Slavs were and still are far from happy to admit that Mother Teresa was Albanian is apparent by the fact that in many conferences, symposia, exhibitions, radio and television programs and documentaries, books, and CD-ROMS dedicated to her in Macedonia, her Albanian roots are almost completely ignored. In most cases, her ethnicity is mentioned mainly to emphasize that she was of mixed ethnic origin.

For an impoverished country like Macedonia that is eager to join the European Union as soon as possible, Mother Teresa is seen as excellent public relations, a means of showing Europe that freedom of religion and other civil and political rights are allegedly guaranteed by the Macedonian state equally to all ethnic groups in the country, including Albanians. Mother Teresa, some Macedonian Slav politicians apparently believe, can help them to improve the country’s image. And they may be right. The saint might not have seen herself as a Macedonian Slav, but she can still be useful to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia after her death. This is one of the reasons why, in April 2006, the Macedonian parliament approved the “Mother Teresa Award,” which will be given to distinguished personalities for their contribution to humanitarian work and culture.F

Notes

1 Elda Spaho, “Nёnё Tereza ‘maqedonase’ refuzohet nga Roma,” Shekulli, 18 July 2003.

2 “Maqedoni, zyrtsrisht: Shqiptarёt pёrbёjnё mbi 25% tё popullsisё,” Korrieri, 2 December 2003

3 Eileen Egan, Such a Vision of the Street: Mother Teresa – The Spirit and the Work (New York: Doubleday, 1986), 413.

4 Romans 15:19 (New Revised Standard Version).

5 Kaplan Resuli Burovich, “The Albanian Racism Towards Its Neighbors is Based on Historical Falsifications,” Interview with Vitomir Dolinski, Vest, 25 February 2003; http://www.unitedmacedonians.org/macedonia/kaplan_english.html.

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission from Gёzim Alpion, Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity? (London: Routledge, 2006) and Routledge.

Gёzim Alpion is professor of sociology at the University of Birmingham, Birmingham, England.