Balkan countries contest Saint Teresa’s heritage

September 3, 2016 7:38 am
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The squabble over Mother Teresa’s origins exposes old ethnic rivalries in the Balkans, with neighbours Albania and Macedonia taking competitive pride in the future saint © AFP / Vincenzo Pinto

, Skopje, Macedonia, Sep 3 – When Pope Francis canonises Mother Teresa on Sunday, two Balkan countries will be celebrating the sainthood of a woman they both fiercely claim as their own.

While she is famed for her work with the poor in the Indian city of Kolkata, the late missionary’s origins have been hotly disputed in southeastern Europe, where she grew up.

Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in 1910 in multi-cultural Skopje – then part of the Ottoman Empire and now capital of the Republic of Macedonia – Mother Teresa had an ethnic Albanian mother whose family came from Kosovo.

Her father’s roots are more debated: most people, especially in Albania, say he too was ethnically Albanian, although some Macedonians have argued he was a Vlach, another Balkan ethnic group.

The squabble exposes old ethnic rivalries in the Balkans, with neighbours Albania and Macedonia taking competitive pride in the Nobel Peace Prize winner – both countries have statues, roads, hospitals and other monuments in her name.

While Mother Teresa is famed for her work with the poor, the late missionary’s origins have been hotly disputed in southeastern Europe, where she grew up © AFP/File / Raveendran

“Mother Teresa was born in Skopje but she never declared herself a Macedonian,” said Albanian historian Moikom Zeqo, author of a study on the nun’s links to Albania.

She “always spoke about her Albanian origins and her universal mission,” Zeqo told AFP.

Macedonians, however, suggest her birthplace is all important.

“We call her ‘Skopjanka’ (citizen of Skopje) because we know she is ours,” said Valentina Bozinovska, director of the national commission for relations with religious communities.

– Barred by communists –

The region changed dramatically in Teresa’s lifetime, with the end of Turkish rule, two world wars, the rise and fall of communism and Yugoslavia, and the nationalistic Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Teresa was baptised Roman Catholic, a minority religion in Skopje, where she spent her childhood and decided early on she would take up a religious life.

She left home aged 18 for a spell at an Irish abbey before travelling to India in 1929.

In the 1930s her mother and sister moved to Tirana in Albania, where communist dictator Enver Hoxha barred Teresa from visiting.

Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in 1910 in multi-cultural Skopje, now capital of the Republic of Macedonia, Mother Teresa had an ethnic Albanian mother whose family came from Kosovo © AFP/File / Pascal George

She eventually made her first of three trips to Albania in 1989, after Hoxha’s death and a year before communism began to fall, to visit the graves of her family and the house where they lived for many years.

Genc Zajmi, 78, still resides in the building and recalls Teresa’s loving letters to her mother, insisting the nun never forgot her Albanian roots.

“It is unacceptable that Macedonia considers Mother Teresa as the symbol of the nation,” Zajmi said.

Muslim-majority Albania celebrates a public holiday on the anniversary of Teresa’s beatification in 2003.

“Illustrious people belong to all humanity but they also have their origins, a nation to which they are linked by blood,” leading Albanian writer Ismail Kadare told AFP.

– Cultural unifier? –

Macedonia displays no less pride in the famed Balkan daughter. The Mother Teresa Memorial House, built on the site where she was christened in Skopje, attracts about 500 visitors a day.

Various celebrations of her sainthood are planned in the mostly Orthodox Christian and Slavic country, including a special mass said by a papal envoy on September 1.

The national bank is issuing a special edition silver coin in her honour.

“She was born here, educated here, lived here, played with friends where we are now, so the fact is that she is from Skopje,” said 28-year-old city resident Maja Vaneska.

Teresa made four short visits to her hometown before her death in 1997, and Bozinovska said the nun was a symbol of “cultural unification” in Macedonia, where about a quarter of the population today is ethnic Albanian.

Macedonia’s ethnic tensions were highlighted by an Albanian insurgency in 2001, and Albanians complain that monuments to the nun are inscribed in Macedonian and English, ignoring a key part of her identity.

In 2003, reports that Macedonia planned to give Rome a statue of Teresa inscribed as Macedonia’s “daughter” in Cyrillic sparked particular controversy.

As for Teresa, she was quoted describing herself both as a “Skopjanka” and as an Albanian “by blood”, but insisting she belonged to the world.

Her adopted home country of India — which gave her citizenship in 1951 — flatly refused Albania’s request in 2009 to hand over her remains, saying she was “resting in her own country, her own land”.

Renata Kutera Zdravkovska, director of Skopje’s memorial house, said it was clear nationality meant little to Teresa.

“I really think she would be unhappy to see that this kind of debate is taking place.”

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