I had never felt like a rock star until I walked around downtown Peja with a yarmulke on last week. People on the street, and sometimes even from across the street, would come up to me and inquire if I was "Israelien"? (presumably "Israeli"?). They would then shake my hand and welcome me to Peja. When I would respond "No, I'm American," often with a happy sense of confusion apparent on my face, I would be greeted with even wider smiles and kinder words.
To put it mildly, this contrasted with the kind of reception I've received as an American Jew while visiting other countries.
In this predominately Muslim city, in the predominately Muslim and "newborn" country of Kosovo, Jews are not only considered exotic and interesting but of key importance to the nation's history. Many Kosovars cite Jewish members of President Bill Clinton's cabinet as key to the American decision to intervene in 1999 and protect Kosovars from the possibility of ethnic cleansing. Others relate to the Jewish narrative of profound pain, followed by the birth of a state intended to protect the unique religious-national community. Still more evoke the important (if complicated) history in which a number of brave Muslims in the Balkans saved Jews during World War II. All three are a source of pride and connection for Kosovars to Jewish visitors such as myself.
More challenging than Muslim-Jewish relations in the region has been Muslim-Christian relations. Yet a concerted effort on the part of Kosovo's government, and its partners throughout Europe, is set on creating new dynamics.
The recent international Interfaith Conference in Peja made clear that Kosovo could in time become a center for interfaith collaboration.
Much of the conference focused on the key geopolitical issue for the Balkans of Serbian Orthodox-Catholic-Muslim relations. It was of great import to bring religious leaders of different groups together, not only to engage in dialogue, but also to come to know each other more informally and gain a deeper sense of empathy for each other's communities. These leaders held the potential to alleviate inter-communal tension and prevent future strains.
Most poignant for me was watching Serbian Orthodox leaders visit a mosque that had been torched by Serbian soldiers during the war and then, just an hour later, seeing Muslim leaders visit the seat of the Orthodox Patriarchate in Peja, which resides in a beautiful monastery surrounded by military barricades for protection. The looks of sympathy and even outright pain on the faces of Muslim and Orthodox clergy reflected their new understanding of the suffering that each community has endured.
Yet the conference also looked well beyond the scope of inter-religious conflict and regional unrest to the potential for religious and social leaders to build together anew. Kosovo's President, Atifete Jahjaga, opened the conference with an invocation of the country's aims and the gathering's implicit focus: "We are building a multicultural society, a strong and prosperous state, for every citizen of our country, a nation where religions are considered our greatest wealth, where religious freedom is our main value."
Matching President Jahgaha's words with action was Kosovo's Foreign Ministry. In addition to facilitating many of the preparations for the interfaith conference, and affording it key diplomatic support, Foreign Minister Enver Hoxhaj and Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi actively partook in and helped lead meaningful portions of the interfaith conference.
While it is not uncommon to have dignitaries address and even provide support for such interfaith gatherings, the Foreign Ministry's direct involvement in religious diplomacy took me by surprise.
During the second afternoon of the conference, Foreign Minister Hoxhaj took time to meet with me and discuss what could be done to connect Kosovo's small Jewish community with its larger American counterpart. Mr. Hoxhaj then introduced me to the leader of Kosovo's Jewish community and suggested that more could, should and would be done to recognize this third religious community present in Kosovo and honor its longstanding history.
I was truly impressed. Sitting in a city that had known inter-religious strife less than 15 years before, a Muslim foreign minister was introducing me to a Jewish colleague with whom he wanted me to build ties. Even while I was seated with Mr. Hoxhaj, leaders from different religious communities approached our table. It was clear that Kosovo's political leaders sought not only to connect with Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy, but also to help them meaningfully connect with each other.
Interfaith and intra-faith collaboration may well become a hallmark of the country once known as a place of religious unrest.