By Alush Gashi and David L. Phillips
Kosova and the Vatican share strategic interests, including conflict resolution, preventing violent extremism and promoting interreligious understanding. Establishing diplomatic relations between Kosova and the Holy See would enable deeper cooperation on issues of mutual concern. The recent agreement to normalize relations between Israel and Kosova sets an important precedent.
Kosova is mostly Muslim. However, Kosovars are secular, progressive, and overwhelmingly tolerant. Mother Teresa, honored in the Catholic Church as Saint Teresa of Calcutta, was an ethnic Albanian. Jews were given sanctuary in Albania during World War Two. More Jews lived on Albanian lands after the war than before. Today, Kosova is a buttress between Islamist extremism and other countries in continental Europe.
Kosova Albanians have a track record of helping the needy. As Serbia’s repression intensified in the 1990s, Mother Teresa charitable clinics served the suffering. The clinics worked with communities to resolve conflict through the “Forgiveness Campaign.”
When Serbia abolished Kosova’s self-governing institutions and prevented students from entering school premises, the Trastevere-based Community of Sant Egidio, encouraged by Pope John Paul II, brokered an agreement to normalize Kosova’s education system in 1996. At the time, the agreement was considered a significant step towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
More recently, Kosova has been active preventing violent extremism (PVE). When some Kosova Albanians joined the Islamic State, the Government of Kosova developed a PVE response focused on the grass-roots. Deradicalization efforts engaged mothers and family members, as well as local imams, focusing on education and economic development.
Discussions are underway to establish a PVE academy, codifying best practices and transferring them to other countries challenged by violent extremism. Kosova envisions the Holy See as a partner on this project.
Kosova is committed to dialogue and conflict resolution. Islam, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism have long coexisted in Kosova, which has become a laboratory for interreligious dialogue and understanding.
Beginning in 1999, the World Conference on Religion and Peace facilitated relations between faith-leaders across Kosova. Kosova Albanians protected the sacred Orthodox monastery at Decan from communal strife in 2004. Interreligious peace and minority rights were enshrined by the Ahtisaari principles, as well as Kosova’s constitution of 2008.
Kosova religious leaders were recognized by the New York-based Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding with its Religious Peacemakers Award. Father Sava Janjic and Albanian counterparts were celebrated as advocates for reconciliation, going beyond dialogue to develop activities with practical cross-communal benefits.
Former Kosova President Ibrahim Rugova admired the humility and wisdom of John Paul II. After they prayed together, Rugova pledged to build a cathedral in Prishtina, Kosova’s capital, dedicated to Mother Teresa. In Rugova’s last public appearance before passing away, he laid the cathedral’s cornerstone.
Diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Kosova would encourage collaborative activities on other issues of mutual interest – peace, human rights, poverty eradication, environmental protection, and assisting migrants. The Holy See, which already has diplomatic relations with 183 countries and the European Union, can strengthen goodwill towards Kosova through diplomatic relations.
So far, 112 countries have recognized Kosova as an independent and sovereign state. When Serbia challenged the legality of Kosova’s independence declaration, the International Court of Justice found that Kosova’s declaration conformed to international law, as well as UN Security Council resolution 1244, which provided a path for Kosova’s independence.
Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, travelled to Kosova in 2019. His visit was affirmation that the Holy See has serious interest and was carefully considering the situation. At the time, the Holy See demured from recognizing Kosova for some diplomatic opportunity reasons.
The Holy See is the world’s foremost moral authority. Its recognition of Kosova would boost EU-facilitated talks between Kosova and Serbia, strengthening Kosova as a source of stability and a peace partner.
Just as Kosova warmly welcomed Cardinal Parolin last year, Kosova looks forward to the day when Pope Francis will visit. The occasion will be a celebration of the commitment to peace and humanitarian action shared by Kosova and the Holy See. We hope his visit also marks a milestone in mutual recognition between Kosova and Serbia.
* Alush Gashi is a Political and Foreign Policy Adviser to Kosova Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti. He previously served as Health Minister and a Member of Parliament.
David Phillips is Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University. He served as a senior adviser to the US State Department. Phillips is the author of Liberating Kosova: Coercive Diplomacy and US Intervention (Harvard’s Kennedy School).